Curbs on journalism impact quality of Pakistan elections

Internet disruptions, informal gag orders and physical attacks restrict online expression, suppress independent journalism and impair fairness at the polls.

On 25 January, supporters of a leading political party assaulted a reporter and a camera operator from the digital media outlet Naya Daur in Lahore – the capital of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, and a traditional hub of electoral politics – and broke their news equipment while they were trying to cover an election rally.

Condemnations against the attack were still fresh when human rights defenders in the country were alerted to another disturbing development: the federal law enforcement agency tasked with investigating cyber crimes had issued hearing notices to around 50 journalists and social media users for allegedly participating in a coordinated online campaign to malign Supreme Court judges in the aftermath of a contentious court ruling that affects the upcoming elections.

News of the notices was met with a swift online reaction of shock and outrage from media and civil society representatives, forcing the Supreme Court itself to intervene and dispel counter-allegations of the targeted harassment of critical journalists for their online commentary.

But even the court’s pacifying gesture might be too little to convince citizens that their expression and access to information are not under threat, as Pakistan’s 128 million registered voters – among the 10 largest voting communities of the world – gear up for polls on 8 February to elect their representatives to the national and provincial legislatures.

The ongoing election season, delayed by three months, is uncharacteristically subdued by the standards of Pakistan’s dramatic political scene. The usual thunder of political street rallies is replaced by the din of regular reports of militant attacks and the public fervour of electoral demands is substituted by muted frustration over a cost-of-living crisis and political interference.

Much of this apparent citizen mistrust and the concern about electoral fairness is due to the complicated chain of events leading to the elections that saw the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), the former ruling party that won the 2018 elections allegedly with the support of Pakistan’s powerful military, fall out of State favour, not allowed to directly contest elections and its leader Imran Khan convicted and imprisoned. The party’s popularity remains, driven mainly by its savvy digital media machine that hooks well into its large youth support base in a country with 128 million mobile internet users.

Ironically, Khan’s disdain of professional media and persecution of media practitioners had reached such heights that RSF declared him a predator of press freedom in 2021. The political developments dating from before his chaotic ouster from office in 2022, the short-lived interim government led by Shehbaz Sharif that followed, and the run-up to the elections has not much changed the plight of journalists as indicated in the annual impunity report by Freedom Network, a partner of IMS (International Media Support) in Pakistan.

This is despite the fact that Pakistan became the first country in the world to legislate on media safety in 2021 with advocacy led by the IMS-supported Pakistan Journalists Safety Coalition and former prime minister Sharif promised to fast-track the operationalisation of the journalists’ safety law at a 2022 seminar organised in Islamabad by IMS and Freedom Network.

Concerns other than the safety of journalists and censorship affecting the coverage of the electoral process in Pakistan also include disinformation as a spoiler. A recent study by the Coalition Against Disinformation, an IMS and Freedom Network-supported group of academia, independent digital media, media rights bodies and civil society organisations, revealed that around 62 percent university students believe that disinformation poses a threat to the quality of elections and democracy.

Disappointed by the legacy media outlets, whose owners either remain beholden to State interests or are unable to defend their editorial independence, people in Pakistan often turn to the internet for alternative sources of news and information. This is where things get worse.

In January alone, authorities have twice disrupted nationwide internet services, according to the global internet monitor Netblocks. The disruptions appear to include throttling – limiting the internet bandwidth to slow down browsing and streaming – and blocking access to major social networks, in addition to separate claims of blocking specific websites.

In all instances, news reports suggested the target might have been PTI’s online fundraising events and virtual political activities. The telecom regulator has denied complicity and blamed technical glitches during system upgrades, but digital rights activists have slammed the explanation and demanded transparency.

The elections that were supposed to be the most digitally active in Pakistan’s history are turning out to be the most switched off.

Even without the Internet shutdowns, the previously mentioned attack on the Naya Daur reporting team in Lahore and the legal investigations opened against journalists provide a glimpse of the risks to independent public-interest media for elections coverage. According to Freedom Network, there were 125 instances of threats and attacks against journalists and media workers in the country in 2023, including 38 cases of assault and two murders.

One of the most popular explanations of the purpose of journalism was given by American journalists Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, who wrote that it is primarily “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” Not many types of information can claim to have a more direct impact on both freedom and self-governance than election-related news. The importance of independent public-interest journalism for elections is therefore undeniable. From the perspective of access to reliable news then, Pakistan’s upcoming elections are suspect at best.

Despite the tightening controls of information, public-interest media and independent journalists are putting up resistance. There is also some indication of collective action. Independent fact-checking units are sifting truths from the political rhetoric, a high court has intervened to stop further Internet disruptions, a front-runner political party has included journalists’ safety in its manifesto, and the representatives of journalist trade unions and press associations have grouped together to form a new coalition to resist curbs on freedom of expression.