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Waqar Gillani

The News on Sunday, Special Correspondent | Pakistan

Waqar Gillani is a Pakistan based journalist focusing on human rights violations, religious extremism and persecution. Gillani has contributed to a number of local and international publications The News International, The New York Times, Agency France Press, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Gilani was a World Press Institute Fellow in 2011 and attended the US International Visitors Leadership program for Investigative Journalism in the past. He is a founding member of International Association of Religion Journalists and currently works as South Asia representative of the IARJ in honorary capacity. Waqar Gillani discussed the role of independent and free media in implementing the SDG 16 and building strong, accountable institutions. Gillani focused on the Pakistani case, underlined that current challenges of journalism in Pakistan, and presented recent incidents regarding the violation of freedom of expression. He also put an emphasis on the role of the civil society organizations to promote freedom of expression and independency of the media outlets.

The rise of violence against journalists and right to access to information for strong institutions is an important subject for every country, but particularly in Pakistan. Pakistan is the sixth largest population of the world, which makes this subject a priority as freedom of expression is facing multiple challenges. Pakistan is working towards effectively implementing the targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

SDG 16 is particularly a prime target. Pakistan, along with the civil society, initiates strong and sustainable institutions. SDG 16.10 refers to the access to information and press freedom. There are efforts to make better laws for accessing information along with guidelines and policies for the safety and protection of journalists. However, target 16.10 specifically aims to promote access to information and freedom by making laws, policies and strengthening institutions. Target 16.10 calls to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

Efforts are underway with the contributions of civil society organizations promoting the right to access to information. In terms of violence against journalists, however, the process is slow and there is a clear difference in theory and practice. The global media rights organizations analyses the press freedom and freedom of expression situation as not at a satisfactory level in Pakistan. The Reporters Without Borders and International Media Rights body declared in the 2020 Annual Report that Pakistan is below where it used to rank in 2019 on the World Press Freedom Index. This index considers various factors to reflect an overall score.

In 2019, different press, media and other civil society reports indicate that there have been more than are 100 attacks on media groups or media persons in different parts the country. These attacks involve physical harm, mental torture, verbal attacks and harassment through different means, especially exercising power and authority allegedly by the state- or state-owned institutions. There is a strong impression that the present democratic regime backed by the military establishment, is systematically curbing freedom and independence, particularly against the critical dissidents. Military, by and large, controls most of the media outlets of digital or TV channels. It uses the media for the news and propaganda of its own agenda in the name of national interest of the country.

Apparently, media propaganda is introduced under the slogan of nationalism and patriotism. A decent example is an online story about the alleged ethics. A recently retired, influential army general was actually published by a new online group through an old journalist. The general was quickly offered a lucrative job by the government after his retirement and later appointed Special Advisor to the Prime Minister. The media has quite miseries and exposes the realities of access to information and freedom of expression. After a certain alleged pressure of the government, all the media outlets issued a clear contradiction and clarification about the military general. Similarly, the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan, which is a body that regulates companies, has a press officer who was appointed by certain organizations with alleged security and military establishment. The press officer was fired shortly after. The alleged impression is that he was questioned about leaking information, which was protected by that commission. There is another owner of a prominent media organization of the country, who is under arrest for the last six months because of a property transaction that took place 34 years ago. The impression is that all these incidents are political because that particular media organization was critical of the present regime. Since the last six months, there have been no formal charge against that media organization or its owner.

There are other instances where it is observed that access to information or freedom of expression are censored. Journalists are being arrested by the government regime or military establishment. Critical media experts are allegedly fired from their jobs due to a certain pressure. Stability and use of words by the journalists criticizing government and military establishment are always questioned. Large-scale polarization of the local media is a serious concern which is actually affecting the performance of all the information channels. Recently, Prime Minister of Imran Khan said that the Pakistani media is freer than any other country. He also added that the right to freedom of speech cannot be justified when individuals are overly criticizing the government.

Having different perspectives is indeed required to establish a healthy society. The challenge in Pakistan is that the state and local governments are even sometimes journalists overreact to the differences in opinion. They lack tolerance and act verbally or physically violent against the individuals or organizations who criticize their acts. A balanced approach certainly is required to allow independent media and freedom of expression to flourish. Similarly, access to information is also selective. It is easy for us to get access to information for everyday stories; however, it is very complex when it comes to sensitive stories. As I mentioned, the CCP Security Exchange Commission officers were kidnapped, picked up by the security establishment for the alleged involvement of leaking of their story.

Considering the Target 16.10 that promotes the right to access information and combats the violence against journalists, Pakistan needs to achieve more to be in track. State and political regimes need to adopt a balanced approach and should welcome criticism, rather often violently, call off freedom of expression and media. Pakistan still lacks a reduction of crime and violence against journalists, which refers to the SDG 16.10. An effective legislator and the proper implementation of laws related to access to information is still required. There is a need to create a supporting environment to help the improvement of the independent media rather often one sided and a polarized approach. We cannot bring longterm changes either in the state institutions or in the civil society without having a consensual and balanced approach towards SDGs to transform institutions through better policies and laws. There is a need for the proper regulatory framework that helps in freedom of expression.

Active and responsible use of social media and the independency of journalists is also a challenge in this oppressive atmosphere. Media outlets and editors have a prominent role to initiate fruitful debates and discussions on this subject. Similarly, there is a need for protection and safety mechanisms by the media outlets for their staff, for the ones who are reporting at the local level. We should have a collective and balanced approach to tolerate criticism and to practice freedom of media and expression. The most prominent challenge for Pakistan is to ensure freedom of expression, free media and tackle violence against journalists to bring behavioral changes within the institutions which are owned by the state and within the civil society and within the media houses.