Sadaf Baig, Pakistan

programs director, Media Matters for Pakistan

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Currently, Pakistan is among the worst countries in the world for press freedom. This is largely a result of the Pakistani government's efforts to control and regulate the media and Internet, as well as dangerous working conditions for journalists who cover terrorism and counter-terrorism efforts. Journalists often face pressure to self-censor their work from political and military figures, as well.

Sadaf Baig, programs director at Media Matters for Pakistan, is among those working to reverse this trend. She spoke with IJNet about the many challenges facing Pakistani journalists — and what can be done to overcome them:

IJNet: In what areas do you see conditions improving for Pakistani journalists? Are there any examples of independent media outlets that are emerging, or are safety conditions improving at all? You mentioned that resistance is building at an individual level — what would it take for it to become organizational?

Baig: The main area where I see improvement isn't really within the traditional and formal media outlets. There is an obvious alternate narrative growing in Pakistan, but it is all thanks to the growth of ICTs and increase in access and usage of technology and the Internet. We are seeing alternate Facebook groups popping up with dissenting political and ideological commentary that wasn't very common before. However, there is a catch, even here — cyberspace is a heavily monitored space and there has been an increase in incitement, hate speech, violence and persecution of people online. Despite this, the dissenting voices are growing, which I see as a positive sign. Sadly, there are no independent media outlets emerging and 2015 has been one of the most regressive years in terms of media behavior — particularly when it comes to reporting over the most sensitive subjects in Pakistan: terrorism and counter-terrorism. The narratives of both have been heavily controlled and directed through ISPR, the Inter Services Public Relations, the mouthpiece of the military establishment. As a result, the media is at a further risk at the hands of militants. Recent attacks at both media offices and journalists have indicated as much.

What are some regressive pieces of legislation that are hindering journalists in Pakistan? Is there any way for journalists to get around these types of things — such as publishing their work at a news organization outside Pakistan, etc.?

The most worrying piece of legislation that is currently being pushed through Parliament is the Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill 2015. Under the guise of controlling cybercrime, the legislation is paving the way for massive control and surveillance of the digital space. Under Section 34 of the bill, broad powers are being given to an authority to 'manage' online content. This section will allow an authorized officer to interpret the language of a constitutional provision without any oversight by the court. The language that this section allows the officer to determine what goes against the 'glory of Islam,' what can affect 'relations with a friendly state' and what constitutes a challenge to 'decency and morality' — such subjective terminologies that allow a designated officer to manage and censor online content will create the space to censor any dissenting political opinions as well. [I've written in detail about Section 34 here and you can read about other issues with this bill on our website.]

On 30th September 2015, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a number of surprising notices to TV channels to control the narrative. First, after the stampede in Mina during the annual Hajj ritual, TV channels were asked to refrain from any criticism of the Saudi government despite the fact that various Pakistani families were directly affected. This is not the first time TV channels have been asked to keep criticism of the Saudi government in check. Earlier, in May 2015, PEMRA issued notifications to all channels citing the same clause and asking them to refrain from airing programs that might harm Pakistan’s relations with friendly countries, aka Saudi Arabia. Another recent notice from PEMRA asks media organizations to refrain from airing or quoting the perspective of banned organizations, i.e. a list of around 60 terrorist organizations that have been declared 'banned' by the state. This notice has led to an increase in attacks on media and at least three attacks on media houses' offices have been claimed by militant organizations who claim that the attacks are being staged as media is engaged in biased reporting.

Is there anything international organizations can do to help journalists in Pakistan?

Pakistan is one of the pilot countries where the UNESCO-led UN Plan of Action against impunity is being implemented. The government of Pakistan thus has an obligation to work towards the goals of ending impunity and ensuring media safety as identified under the UN action plan. International organizations can keep up the pressure by releasing statements, reports and perform as that keep the government accountable for its inaction. A number of international groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders at times support journalists at serious risk in relocation to other countries. While this practice isn't a long term solution, it is at times the only way to ensure safety of vulnerable journalists who aren't being offered any protection within Pakistan. In cases where the risk is severe and no local options are available, the relocation support also needs to continue. Finally, international organizations can lend support to local groups working for the cause. This would allow local groups to gain benefit from the expertise of people who have worked in similar situations. I would also like to point out something that international groups, specially donors should not do — work on the issue within the typical deliverable driven model — that reduces the solutions to a set of endless trainings and consultations. We need to find a way to design objective driven projects and programs with international donors that allow local partners to have the resources to respond to situations as and when they change and focus on the larger objective instead of worrying about checking a specific set of deliverables.

What types of things does Media Matters for Pakistan do to safeguard reporters from censorship and violence, and to make working conditions better for Pakistani reporters in general?

Media Matters for Democracy is involved in different initiatives geared towards ensuring journalists' security in the country. We have been working on Media Workers Safety Bill with a coalition of different organisations and are currently advocating for the bill with Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. We also connect journalists under threat with national and international organisations who can offer them support. 

Our most recent initiative towards journalists' safety is a digital application called Muhafiz, or Protector, that is being piloted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a conflict-ridden region where journalists face serious threats. Muhafiz is a mobile and web-based application that would work to document threats to journalists, chalk our trends, and would also work as an SOS system to connect journalists under threat to local police officials and relevant provincial government officials.

What do you hope will happen to journalism in Pakistan in 2016 and beyond? What type of media climate would you like to eventually see?

I am unfortunately not very optimistic about the direction that the media in Pakistan is taking. I hope that in 2016, we will see more resistance and more independent reporting, especially regarding conflict and counter-terrorism. Over Facebook, blogs and private thematic WhatsApp groups, journalists are expressing frustration, which might eventually lead to public resistance in the near future. 

Civil society and media development groups are also getting more active, and there is obvious outrage on social media after regressive notices are issued or obviously biased reporting is done. More people are filing direct complaints with PEMRA, writing private and open letters of protest and taking an issue with sub par journalism. I hope that the challenge to its credibility would eventually pressurize media into resisting commercial, political and other pressures to sustain a certain independence and quality in its journalism. 

However, in terms of media safety, I do not see 2016 as being the year where things would drastically improve. The journalists have faced threats from both state and non state actors and the media is now trying to curtail the threats from state actors by simply giving in to the pressure and indulging in self censorship. However, the same thing leads to an increase in threats from non state actors and so the media is caught in a very challenging situation. There also have been announcements to 'Islamize' media from radical factors with known militant links which further endangers the media in 2016. 

All in all, the situation looks grim. However, I hope that the political forces would finally work to end impunity which might bring some respite. I dare not hope for independence of the media in the true sense, however, I hope that in 2016 we will see more resistance and more voices of dissent.

This interview has been edited.