Protecting Press Freedom: Urgent Actions Needed to Ensure Safety of Journalists in Pakistan’s Upcoming Elections
Pakistan’s upcoming general elections in 2023 are shrouded in uncertainty, but the charged political rhetoric, rallies, and protests have already had a profound negative impact on the safety of the media and the space for free expression in the country. Unfortunately, the nature of the attacks on the media in 2022-23 suggests that journalists and media professionals will face an onslaught of violence in the politically charged environment leading up to the elections.
An annual report released on World Press Freedom Day 2023 Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) has recommended concrete actions to ensure the safety of journalists during the political transition.
The report recommends the immediate formation of the Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Other Media Professionals by the federal government. The effective implementation of the federal Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2021, and the provincial-level Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Act 2021 is essential to increase accountability, reduce violence against the media, and tackle the culture of impunity surrounding these crimes.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) must review its Code of Conduct for the media and ensure that it provides unambiguous measures to ensure the safety of journalists and media professionals reporting on the elections. Any sections about restricting media coverage should be excluded from the Code of Conduct for National Media. The ECP must also review its Code of Conduct for Political Parties and ensure that it assigns specific responsibility to political parties for media safety and compels them to share their plans for media safety to prevent incidents such as the death of Sadaf Naeem that took place at a political rally in October 2022.
The report also recommends that the ECP assign specific responsibility to political parties for the safety of the media and require them to ensure effective measures for media safety are in place during their electioneering events. The mandated content regulator, PEMRA, must not encourage censorship or act as a muzzle on free speech. During both provincial and general elections, coverage of all developments must be permitted without fear of reprisal or prohibition orders stopping the broadcast of critical issues or incidents.
Digital media and social media platforms may become sources of information overload during election cycles. While it is the media’s responsibility to ensure accurate and verified coverage, any measures to increase regulation of these platforms or suspend internet access, as observed previously, are unacceptable. Free expression across all media platforms is vital for a free and fair election in a democracy.
Registration of cases and initiating criminal proceedings against journalists or media persons encourage self-censorship through intimidation. Journalists must be permitted to work without fearing legal reprisals, lengthy cases, or arrests. Media organisations must also provide journalists with safety training and equipment. The physical and mental well-being of staff should be taken into account and safeguarded through practical training, timely payment of salaries, and constant evaluation of the safety risk to journalists.
Only by protecting the safety of journalists and media professionals can the public receive accurate and impartial information, and the democratic process can be conducted freely and fairly.