Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists: many have been tortured and killed, many others – including heads of media organizations – have been imprisoned and the deep state is known to even pursue journalists who are in exile.
In this context, it was dumbfounding when in March 2020, when in an interaction with journalists, Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that the media in Pakistan had more freedom than any other country. Khan had made a similar assertion last year in July when he visited the United States and also the United Kingdom.
However, as Reena Omer, legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists, wrote recently in Dawn, “The prime minister’s assertion is at odds with nearly every assessment of media freedom in the country, which includes the recent report prepared by the European Commission on Pakistan’s compliance with the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences-Plus conditions. The GSP-Plus trading status is an instrument of the EU’s trade policy that aims to encourage developing countries to comply with core international standards in return for trade incentives. While the European Parliament extended Pakistan’s GSP-Plus status for two years after reviewing the report, the European Commission’s assessment raises some serious concerns about the human rights situation in the country — particularly related to the freedom of expression and the media — which, if unaddressed, could be a major hindrance in Pakistan retaining the GSP-Plus trade benefits in the coming years.”
Further, “The report noted that there had been a “serious deterioration of media freedom in Pakistan, a trend that began in the lead-up to the general election in 2018”, with national security widely used as a “pretext for cracking down on freedom of expression”. It highlighted the “increasing pressure by security forces, with the tacit approval of the government, on those with dissenting views, including media representatives and human rights defenders”. It detailed the intimidation tactics used against the media, and expressed concern that they often lead to self-censorship by journalists and publishers, which hampers their capacity to continue to function. The report also pointed out how cable operators were prohibited from broadcasting certain networks, and how the distribution of certain newspapers was severely curtailed in the country.”
As Omer notes, “It is unfortunate, however, that instead of resolving to address the concerns raised by the European Commission, the government has further increased its clampdown on the media and dissenting voices since the renewal of the GSP-Plus. Take, for example, the arrest of Mir Shakilur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of the Jang group, who was arrested on March 12 by the National Accountability Bureau on charges relating to a 34-year-old properly transaction. According to Jang Group, over the past 18 months, NAB sent more than a dozen threatening letters to its staff for critical reporting of the authority.
Finally, Omer warns, “Pakistani authorities should take note that Sri Lanka’s GSP status was suspended for a number of years after 2010, when the European Commission found “significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme”. It is therefore crucial for Pakistan to take seriously the findings of the European Commission’s report, as well as observations of the UN Human Rights Committee, and be in a position to demonstrate concrete and significant progress in practice. Failure to do so would hurt the Pakistani people twice over. Not only will they continue to be deprived of protection of human rights guaranteed by Pakistan’s constitution, as well as international treaty obligations, they also risk losing the potential economic benefits that result from the EU’s trade incentives under the GSP-Plus.”