Report Reveals Sharp Decline in Freedom of Expression in Pakistan

In a recent report titled “Erosion of Free Speech: The Silencing of Citizens, Political Parties, and Media,” Freedom Network, a media rights watchdog, has raised serious concerns about the state of freedom of expression in Pakistan. The report covers the period from May 2023 to April 2024 and highlights the shrinking space for dissent and the increasing risks faced by journalists and media practitioners in the country.

The report reveals a disturbing trend of reduced tolerance for online dissent, forced suspension of social media platforms, and frequent shutdowns of mobile networks, particularly on election days. These actions, coupled with a series of attacks and harassment of journalists and bloggers, including the murder of four journalists, have significantly eroded the parameters of general free speech and dissent in Pakistan over the past year.

The report documents a total of 104 cases of violations against journalists and other media practitioners, including murders, attacks, injuries, kidnappings, threats, and legal cases. This highlights the dangerous environment in which media professionals operate in Pakistan.

The report also notes that the political landscape in Pakistan has been marked by acute polarization and instability, with three different governments in power between May 2023 and April 2024. All three ruling dispensations, the report suggests, have shown a worrying consensus among their most powerful political and state figures to lower their threshold of tolerance to freedom of expression, particularly online dissent.

The report outlines a pattern of crackdowns targeting journalists, bloggers, and political workers, including legal notices, arrests, attacks, and intimidation. It also mentions that political workers have been caught in this dragnet, all against a backdrop of warnings of actions by high officials, including top government functionaries, followed by regular targeting of online expression.

Apart from state-driven intimidation, the report also highlights predatory actions by some non-state actors, with over 200 journalists, bloggers, and other online information practitioners targeted by way of over 70 legal notices served to them.

Iqbal Khattak, Freedom Network Executive Director, stated, “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.”

The report serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by those who dare to voice dissent in Pakistan. It calls for urgent action to protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to ensure the safety of journalists and media practitioners in the country.

In response to these challenges, the government has introduced the E-Safety Bill, aiming to regulate digital media platforms and protect personal data. The bill has been met with mixed reactions, with some expressing concerns over potential misuse for illegal surveillance and further restrictions on digital freedoms.

Digital rights advocates have criticized the E-Safety Bill for potentially enabling illegal surveillance and isolating Pakistan from the global digital community. There are fears that the legislative frameworks could be used to target free expression and dissent.

The report and the recent developments underscore the need for a robust and concerted effort to safeguard freedom of expression in Pakistan. As the world prepares to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the findings of this report serve as a timely reminder of the importance of this fundamental right and the challenges that lie ahead in ensuring its protection.

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