Journalists Protection Act 2021 implementation problems and possibilities in Securing the Fourth Estate

PESHAWAR: On the fateful evening of January 17, 2012, tragedy struck the journalism community in Pakistan when an unknown gunman opened fire on Mukarram Khan Atif, a 40-year-old senior journalist and correspondent for the US-based Pashto language “Deewa Radio,” as well as a reporter for the private TV channel “Dunya News.” Atif’s life was cut short in the Shabqadar area of Charsadda district when he was gunned down by members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The incident occurred as a response to Atif’s unwavering commitment to journalistic ethics. He had refused to provide coverage to the Taliban on his radio station, which led to the extremist group targeting him for his principled stance. At the time of the attack, Atif was in the middle of his prayers when he was shot three times. Despite being rushed to a nearby hospital in critical condition, he succumbed to his multiple head injuries, leaving his family and the entire journalism community devastated.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) openly claimed responsibility for the heinous act, reveling in their brazen attack on a journalist who refused to succumb to their demands. However, despite the claim, the police have not made any arrests in connection with Atif’s murder, leaving justice elusive and the perpetrators at large.

The lack of progress in the investigation has left Atif’s family and fellow journalists frustrated and disheartened. Atif’s nephew, Arshad Khan Mohmand, expressed deep concern over the apparent closure of the case without anyone being held accountable. The impunity enjoyed by the assailants sends a chilling message to journalists across the country, raising serious doubts about their safety and security.

Tragically, Mukarram Khan Atif’s case is not an isolated incident in Pakistan. According to a report by the Pakistan Press Foundation, since 2002, at least 76 journalists have been killed, with 29 of those deaths occurring in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This grim statistic paints a distressing picture of the dangers faced by journalists while performing their vital roles in society

The situation becomes even more alarming when examining data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), spanning from 1992 to 2023, which indicates that nearly 97 journalists have lost their lives in Pakistan. These numbers reflect a pattern of danger for media professionals, with the last four years alone witnessing the deaths of 42 journalists. Tragically, little progress has been made in bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

The government of Pakistan introduced the Journalists Protection Act in 2021, promising to protect the rights and safety of media professionals, in response to the rising threats and assaults against journalists in Pakistan. However, a thorough analysis shows that this important piece of legislation has had serious implementation flaws two years after it was passed.

Despite the Act’s declared goal of providing journalists with a secure workplace, there have been several instances of harassment, intimidation, and violence against members of the media personnel. One of the journalist Malik Ismail, reporter at Khyber News TV is facing life threats   from Taliban as he made a report public revealing the Taliban’s murder of a police officer in Peshawar District. Ismail got extortions demanding a modification in his words by declaring the deceased as a traitor. He laments the fact that we are still in danger despite the Journalists Protection Act has been passed to provide a secure environment to the journalists.

According to International Press Institute (IPI) monitoring data from October 2022 and March 2023, At least 35 press freedom threats and violations occurred during this six-month period, more than half of which were committed by public authorities, including by law enforcement and the judiciary. Pakistan Press Foundation report 2022-2023 reveals that there were at least 72 confirmed cases of physical violence against media practitioners, including homicides, assaults, harassment, kidnappings, and attacks on press clubs. 11 events were registered between May 2022 and April 2023, making up the 61 incidents that were recorded in 2022.

In our country, the issue of impunity still raises serious concerns. Due to inadequate prosecution and the influence of strong institutions, many attackers—even those who are identified—go unpunished. The silence of voices that might expose injustice results from this climate of fear, which prevents journalists from investigating sensitive stories. Muhammad Naeem a reporter to Daily Jinnah expressed his opinions.

Amidst the growing concerns over the safety of journalists, Mr. Arshad Aziz Malik, the President of Peshawar Press Club, emphasized the critical role journalists play in protecting democracy and promoting openness in Pakistan. He passionately advocated for stronger legal protection for journalists, as existing regulations often fall short in ensuring their safety and well-being.

The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021 was a significant step towards ensuring media independence in Pakistan. However, its true effectiveness lies in its implementation. Mr. Malik urged cooperation between the government, journalists’ organizations, media oversight bodies, and law enforcement to ensure the Act’s provisions are robustly enforced. This concerted effort, he asserted, is the key to protecting journalists and creating an environment where they can carry out their duties without fear of harm.

According to PPF’s data, out of the 76 killings of journalists, First Information Reports (FIRs) were registered in 74 instances. However, there have been convictions in only a handful of cases, one of which was the case of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist killed in Pakistan. The low number of convictions compared to the number of killings and murders of journalists in the country is an apt reflection of the culture of impunity that surrounds crimes against the media.

Iqbal Khattak, the Freedom Network Pakistan Representative, echoed similar sentiments, emphasizing that while laws for journalists’ safety and security do exist, their proper implementation is lacking. Numerous instances of journalists being kidnapped, harassed, and killed have occurred, with culprits escaping accountability. He lamented that incumbent governments have often failed to take these issues seriously, leading to protests and demands for stronger action.

The current environment in Pakistan shows that threat actors seem to enjoy immunity for their crimes against journalists, whether it be intimidation, harassment, kidnapping, or physical attacks. This grim reality underscores the urgent need for stringent implementation of laws and measures to protect journalists and create a safe environment for media professionals in the country.

To safeguard democratic principles and openness, the government must place its greatest emphasis on protecting journalists and press freedom. The Task Force must have sufficient funding, the complaint procedure must be streamlined, and those who commit acts of violence against journalists must face fast justice in order to close implementation gaps in the Journalists Protection Act of 2021.

In order to improve journalists’ digital safety and promote investigative reporting, media organizations, civil society, and international partners should work together to offer them resources and training. The road to securing a safe environment for journalists in Pakistan is undeniably challenging. However, the Journalists Protection Act 2021 offers hope and promise. It requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders, including the government, media organizations, oversight bodies, and law enforcement, to ensure its effectiveness in safeguarding the crucial function of journalists. Only then can Pakistan’s journalism industry flourish, upholding the values of openness, responsibility, and the fundamental right to freedom of the press.

By: Dr. Sumaira Gul

Source: Peshawar Today


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