In its World Press Freedom Index 2023, Reporters without Borders ranked Pakistan 150 out of 180 countries, a mild improvement from its rank of 157 the prior year. It speaks to the dire conditions of press freedom in Pakistan that despite the improvement, 2023 remained a troubling year for Pakistani journalists and media personnel. Several journalists were “abducted” for several hours, often being tortured, before being released. The marketing director of Bol Media Group was kidnapped from Karachi in April and his whereabouts remain unknown. Anchor Imran Riaz Khan similarly went “missing” in May, returning four months later in a state that made it difficult for him to speak for weeks.
Despite various publications of all political bents existing in Pakistan since its inception, a succession of repressive regimes—most notably military dictatorships—have taken steps to severely restrict press freedom, with censorship compounding rather than reversing even under so-called democratic governments. In 1960, the Press and Publications Ordinance granted the government extensive control over the press, allowing it to ban publications considered harmful to national ideology or security. Journalists who criticized the government faced arrest, imprisonment, and torture, discouraging investigative journalism and boosting a reliance on rote statements. This was followed by the strict censorship rules of Gen. Ziaul Haq’s 1978-88 rule, which saw unprecedented government power to restrict any news considered provocative or unfavorable of the regime. In recent years, social media and digital platforms have taken on great significance, with multiple attempts to rein them in through means deemed to stifle dissent and limit free expression.
Throughout this, journalists continue to face a variety of problems, including threats of assault and harassment. This is especially concerning in an election year, as the country cannot progress without press freedom, considered an essential ingredient of a functioning democracy. The lack of a functional, independent media also leaves a vacuum that in recent years has been filled by social media, which carries its own problems of falling victim to disinformation and the proliferation of “fake news.” The “solution” proposed by successive governments has been greater repression, despite rights bodies making clear this only worsens the situation. The need of the hour is an open media and transparent accountability of online content; anything less would just encourage more fake news, which an already-polarized society can ill-afford.