Lahore — Azhar Munir has been on a hunger strike for a little over a month outside the Lahore Press Club. He sits every day on the footpath opposite the Shimla Pahari, where the Press Club is located, and on some days is joined by other journalists despite the threat of Covid-19. For Mr. Munir, the hunger strike is to bring attention to the declining state of press freedom in the country.
“The imprisonment of Mir Shakil ur Rehman acted as a catalyst,” Mr. Munir, who isn’t new to protests and hunger strikes, says.
He has done this multiple times over the past few years for causes he believed in, and he is confident he played his part in making a difference. He was an employee of the Jang group, which Mr. Rehman owns, in the early ’90s, but he says he has no personal affiliation with the man.
In the late ’90s when Mr. Munir was working for the Urdu daily Pakistan, he ran a similar campaign to protest the Sharif government, which had tried to prevent the publication of Jang group newspapers by stopping its news print supply.
Aside from a few news articles, Mr. Munir’s protest for the release of the Jang group owner and press freedom in the country has not been covered by any mainstream news channel, including the one he is protesting to protect.
On World Press Freedom Day 2020, the deteriorating press freedom in the country is a cause for concern for many media professionals. But most journalists choose to remain silent about it, fearing repercussions.
Many put the burden on the shoulders of the current government.
Ahmer Shaheen, a journalist with over 10 years of experience who runs his own media organisation called Inqilab, says that even before the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf was elected to office, the political party was boycotting Geo, one of the leading news channels in the country.
“(It is) a policy that continued even after they came into government,” he says.
This was surprising for many because never had a party in power previously boycotted an entire media organisation in a similar way.
Mr. Shaheen says this also had a very real impact on the kind of information that they could get and the access they had. He was heading Geo Investigations at the time and recalls, “We always had access to public officials and if we told them we were doing a story, there was no way they wouldn’t come down to give their version, but right after the election we tried to get the Chief Election Commissioner, who refused to speak to us.”
For Mr. Shaheen, this was an example of how the current government was managing the media and the stage was set for the years to come.
There have been multiple instances where access to government officials for the media has been restricted. In November 2018, the Chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) barred all officers of the bureau from speaking to the press, after a series of television interviews given by the Director General of NAB in Lahore. A previously created code of conduct was then evoked which prevented officials from speaking to the press. Similarly, the Sindh government ordered police officers to avoid appearing on talk shows or speaking to the media. The directive allowed them to only give performance reviews through press conferences.
Actions like this end up restricting access that reporters have to government officials. Journalists are forced to contact the highest-level official at any government department to be able to get a simple comment that could otherwise have been given by a junior-ranked employee.
Mr. Shaheen says he views this as strangulation of the press.
Reporters throughout the country have spoken of decreased access to public information and data.
Ijaz Khan Sahu, a journalist from South Punjab, talks about how access to public officials for crucial information is limited even during the current pandemic.
“The focal person of the coronavirus cell does not answer the phone and in this situation we can’t go to hospitals or gather information from there,” he says.
Mr. Sahu also feels that when a reporter is asking critical questions or producing stories that do not project the government in a positive light, they often won’t be able to get a government official to comment on the story or provide further information.
Izharullah, a Peshawar-based journalist, seconds this view.
“(The government) thinks that the media’s job is to do positive stories only, but this is not what we do,” he says.
Mr. Izharullah also says that while the government regularly interacts with the media in the form of press conferences, there is very little interaction outside of that.
Adnan Rehmat, a political analyst and media development specialist, also mentions this lack of interaction with the media under the current government.
He points to the fact that the Prime Minister has not done a single press conference.
“Instead he calls selected people of the media to the Prime Minister House for a controlled discussion,” Mr. Rehmat says.
He also says that while ministers and high-level officials might appear in front of the media to answer questions, they have a “Trump-like policy” where they turn on the media and begin questioning the media itself.
Mr. Rehmat also says that most press conferences by the current government are not open to questions.
“Name five ministers from this government who will come out and actually answer questions,” he asks, rhetorically.
For Mr. Rehmat, a lot of this behaviour is linked to the current government’s obsession with projecting a positive image. He says the current government has a discernible policy regarding the media.unlike previous governments which were “mostly reactive to the media”.
The current government has seven people that advise the Prime Minister on media and communication issues in some form, Mr. Rehmat says, and even then there is no consistency.
While reporters have seen this unsaid government policy play out on their jobs every day in the form of limited access and reluctant government officials, Mr. Rehmat says this underhanded policy is the worst the media has seen since Zia ul Haq’s era.