22nd Jan, 2023. 09:10 am

Power to the pen

Press freedom in Pakistan has been on a dangerous decline for years now. Last week’s arrest of Bol News investigative journalist Shahid Aslam, by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), only goes on to strengthen the global perception about Pakistan being one of the most unsafe countries for journalists. The senior journalist was arrested on allegations of ‘leaking’ information for an online investigative story alleging that General (retd) Qamar Javed Bajwa’s family amassed billions of rupees in wealth and properties during his tenure as the chief of army staff. Aslam denied having anything to do with the story. The journalist under whose by-line the piece was published in November last year also denied Aslam having any role in it. But the FIA still hounded and arrested Aslam. A chilling video of him being dragged by FIA officials to court went viral on social media, in which the journalist could be heard saying that he was being asked to hand over his passwords. The journalist stood his ground, saying that would only happen “over my dead body”. Aslam’s brave defiance was commendable. Protecting a source and their privacy is a basic tenet of journalism. But it was nothing short of a tragedy to see a journalist have to do it this way.

Aslam has now been released on bail, but this is hardly a cause to celebrate. It is only a matter of time when another journalist will be hauled in for questioning, and subjected to bizarre accusations, for merely doing his/her job. The unfair protection granted to certain sections of the Pakistani ruling elite makes our apprehension all the more certain. Add to the mix the perpetual misuse of cybercrime – under which journalist Shahid Aslam has also been booked – and sedition laws and you have yourself a state itself doing a disservice to whatever is left of ‘democracy’ in this country. A deeper sense of despair also stems from the unfortunate realisation that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) government has chosen to stick to its track record of muzzling media freedom. It reminds us of the year 1999 when the elder Sharif-led government unleashed a crackdown on some of the country’s leading newspapers, leaving them no choice other than publishing skeleton editions; when senior journalists were blacklisted and forced to either be dismissed from service or demoted.

In 2015, during his third stint in power, the Nawaz Sharif government targeted the Bol Media Group, launching an unprecedented crackdown to prevent the launch of its news channel at the behest of rival media owners. The current coalition government, despite riding high on promises of offering journalists’ protection, has stooped too low in its attempt to silence independent voices and the media. In the short nine months of its rule, the list of the Shehbaz Sharif government’s crimes against the media has become a long one. It includes targeting leading anchor person Arshad Sharif, which eventually led to his murder in Kenya under mysterious circumstances. Many other leading media faces, including Sami Ibrahim, Jameel Faruqi and Imran Riaz Khan – all belonging to Bol News – had cases framed against them. Faruqi and Khan – both even faced arrest and torture during custody.

Pressuring media houses and using PEMRA to illegally stop transmission of independent news channels has become a new normal in the land of the pure. In Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s own words – spoken just last month at an event organised by the Journalist Safety Forum – his “government believes that no journalist or human rights activist should be called out in the line of duty”. But the targeting of journalists, including the latest arrest of Aslam, shows that the premier can’t walk his talk. Passed with much gusto and fervour was also the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2021. Yet, the number of attacks on journalists since its passing are no secret. What good are laws if they have to be so unabashedly flouted? Legislation can only be a deterrence if ruling quarters don’t enjoy the impunity they have become so used to being accorded.

Shooting the messenger will only get the state authorities so far. If anything has to be investigated, it is the stories that the journalists are reporting. In a society where people are barred from speaking the truth, and pens disallowed to write it, it is the language of violence that takes over. The people and state both stand to lose when that happens.


The press freedom has very tactically been usurped by the state and media oligarchs. Journalist unions will have to do much more than releasing statements of condemnation, and acting as pawns of the powerful. The time to demand power to the pen is now!


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