While the world observes May 03 as the international day of Press Freedom, many in Pakistan think that the real day when journalists resisted efforts to limit their right to free expression is May 13.
Way back in 1978, a military court, set up by the then army dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq awarded four journalists 10 lashes each. The four senior journalists included Masudullah Khan, Khawar Naeem Hashmi, Nasir Zaidi and Iqbal Jaffery.
A senior journalist Saqlain Imam wrote on social media that it was an unprecedented movement of Pakistani journalists for the freedom of the press when Gen. Zia had unleashed some extremely strict measures to gag newspapers.
That was the time when Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) launched this movement under the leadership of inspiring leader Minhaj Barna. Around 400 journalists and members of the civil society courted arrest across the country.
During that movement when four journalists from Lahore courted arrest they refused to stay silent even when they were produced before a military court. Masudullah Khan challenged the authority of an army officer to try the journalists. The army officer who was presiding over the military court then and there awarded these four journalists 10 lashes each for their defiance.
A doctor at a Lahore Jail refused to carry out the sentence on Masudullah Khan due to later’s physical disability. However, the jail authorities flogged Khawar, Nasir and Iqbal in the full view of jail inmates.
This year the May 3 or 13 comes at a time when the media in Pakistan, which has expanded manifold, is facing “unannounced censorship.” Journalists are feeling less confident in saying/reporting what they wish to say independently. Also the need is being felt to clearly distinguish the fine line between freedom of expression and credible journalism.
Although Pakistani media faces what Hamid Mir calls “the worst kind of unannounced censorship from a powerful security establishment” he remains defiant: “For me, public interest is parallel to national interest and I am proud to be a journalist fighting for public’s right to know by sticking to my duty as a journalist,” he wrote in a recent personal blog about his case in the Freedom Network.
English daily Dawn newspaper very eloquently wrote in its May 04 editorial that the principal legal, and occasionally violent, threat has come from the state itself, which continues to treat certain issues and subjects as no-go zones for the journalistic community. “Against neither of those threats are the journalists able to adequately defend themselves, not least because the state, instead of being an ally and an emphatic advocate of a free press, seemingly prefers to muzzle them.
“With the situation so grim, can there be much hope of a turnaround? Prima facie, there is not. That comes down largely to the negative role the state itself is playing. What the state should be doing is dedicating more resources to make journalists safe and to find and capture those who attack them.
What the state is in fact doing is drafting ever more draconian laws limiting free speech and putting fresh curbs on the media. The grim mood on World Press Freedom Day here looks set to continue.”
Hate speech is another issue that has been brought to the front recently by clearly annoyed Mutahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain’s outburst against the powerful military. The debate should now be in Pakistan that what constitutes a hate speech, how the media can avoid airing such controversial utterances and what if it happens could be the punishment?
Press freedom is of prime important, not the day once a year that it’s celebrated. Nevertheless, it’s also important that we continue to talk about these issues as much as possible. The best day for a free media in Pakistan would be the day when all forces in Pakistan – violent and non-violent- become accommodative of opposition’s point of view.