Pakistan traditionally has had a poor track record of enforcing its constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and right to information. This is primarily rooted in Pakistan’s political trajectory blighted by four bouts of martial law and often severe restrictions on free speech even under civilian rule in service of discouraging overt criticism of the military, the official state religion and the judiciary.
These shackles undermine the role of media as a guardian of public interest, the democratic aspirations of people, adversely affect the quality of national dialogue on politics, media freedoms and civil liberties of citizens. The media is often an easy punching bag in the state’s proclivity of restricting free speech – from newsrooms to university campuses and from the rights discourses to development narratives, freedom of expression is discouraged.
Journalists that attempt to pursue professional media standards and promote public interest journalism are often attacked, vilified and even physically harmed. Media houses, including television channels and their programs are often the targets of shutdowns by the media regulators from exercising free speech. Even politicians, rights activists and free speech advocates find themselves the target of legal cases and hate speech campaigns.
The state being generally intolerant of overt criticism over its many failures of governance has ensured Pakistan finds itself poorly ranked in most well-known global indexes on freedom of expression. Pakistan was ranked 157 in a group of 200 countries on the annual Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) Press Freedom Index in 2022. It was also ranked 37th worst out of 210 countries in 2022 ranked by Freedom House’s global freedom index earning it a “partially free” status for democratic freedoms. According to a 2022 Freedom Network report on media freedoms, over 150 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000 and more than 2,000 others attacked, injured, kidnapped, arrested and intimidated in the same period. In 2022 the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) South Asia Press Freedom Report termed the Pakistani state’s crackdown on media as ‘media martial law.’ Since 2018 Freedom Network has been operating the Pakistan Journalist Safety Fund (PJSF) that supports journalist victims of crackdown on freedom of expression.