Margins of Dissent of Citizens, Media and Political Parties in Pakistan Erode: Report

Pakistan Freedom of Expression and Media Annual Report 2024

Press Release

ISLAMABAD, 28 April 2024: Reduced tolerance for online dissent, shutting down mobile networks on election day, throttling of internet access, forced suspension of a social media platforms, and a raft of attacks and harassment of journalists and bloggers, including the murder of four journalists, significantly eroded the parameters of general free speech and dissent in Pakistan over the past 12 months while enhancing the risks for media freedoms.

This is stated in the annual Pakistan Freedom of Expression and Media Report 2024 produced by civil liberties group Freedom Network issued ahead of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Titled “Erosion of free speech: The silencing of citizens, political parties and media” and covers the May 2023 to April 2024 period.

“Freedom of expression loses its meaning if citizens and their representatives in political parties cannot express themselves freely and curbs on media and online civic spaces are curtailed in negation of constitutional guarantees,” Iqbal Khattak, Freedom Network Executive Director, said marking the report launch.

The report noted with great concern that four journalists were killed in the period under review – two each in Sindh and Punjab. A total of 104 cases of violations against journalists and other media practitioners, including murders, attacks, injuries, kidnapping, threats and legal cases, were documented by Freedom Network.

“Acute political polarization and governance and economic instability saw three governments in the one year between May 2023 and April 2024 in Pakistan. Through their actions all three ruling dispensations seemed to have evolved an alarming consensus among its most powerful political and state figures to lower their threshold of tolerance to freedom of expression, particularly online dissent,” the report underlined.

A pattern of crackdowns in the past year emerged that saw dozens of journalists and bloggers slapped with legal notices, some being arrested, and others attacked and aggressively intimidated, according to the report. “Political workers also came in the dragnet. All this transpired against a backdrop of warnings of actions by high officials, including top government functionaries, followed by regular targeting of online expression.”

The report says that apart from state-driven intimidation, predatory actions by some non-state actors saw over 200 journalists, bloggers and other online information practitioners targeted by way of over 70 legal notices served to them. “Many came consequent to a ‘joint investigation team’ of various government departments tasked with identifying persons allegedly running a smear campaign against some judges although the chief justice later said he was not a complainant, and that the judiciary was being used to target free expression aimed at others.”

The report also noted major failures ofkey state actions and targeting of other journalists and free speech practitioners by non-state actors that reversed the freedom of expression dial in Pakistan in the period under review included a near-universal suspension across the country of mobile phone services on February 8, 2024 – the day over 125 million registered voters had to elect national and provincial legislatures. The curtailment of access to information and freedom expression also included forced frequent network shutdowns and prolonged social media platform suspensions.

The report also expresses concern at renewed government attempts to legislate in the coming weeks the E-Safety Bill and Personal Data Protection Bill. Both were approved by the federal cabinet of Shahbaz Sharif’s previous government in July 2023. The bills aim to establish separate authorities with powers to penalize both ‘posters of content’ on social media platforms and ‘hosters of content – tech corporations’ for any allegedly ‘anti-state   content’ online, as well as force global firms like Google, Facebook, X and YouTube to open offices in Pakistan and make available data on Pakistani users to the authorities on demand. No public consultations have been done on the bills.

“Adverse policy actions such the state’s intent to weaponize regulations of online content, particularly social media platforms, including journalistic and social expression will not only institutionalize coercive censorship but also put other Pakistan’s rising digital economy in peril,” the report warns.

The report also documented “small victories” in defense of freedom of expression and media freedoms in the period under review. Several actions by the courts helped journalists and citizens exercising their right to free speech and civic spaces open. These included: The Supreme Court of Pakistan, acting in January 2024 on a joint petition filed by the associations of journalists that report from the Supreme Court and the Islamabad High Court, ordered the Federal Investigations Agency to suspend notices issued to journalists; the Lahore High Court in November 2023 quashed a case against a journalist charged with hate speech and sedition; and in February and April 2024, the Sindh High Court and Islamabad High Court, respectively, ordered the suspension of social media platform X to be revoked to allow the public to use it. — ENDS

More from the News section

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please subscribe to get the latest news and articles!