Pakistan passes landmark law on safety of journalists

A long-awaited law to improve the safety of journalists and fight impunity in Pakistan, one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, has finally been passed in the Sindh province. Other provinces and the state government is expected to follow suit with new laws to protect local media workers. Even though the road is still long, this step is big win for press freedom in the country

In late summer 2021, Pakistan’s beleaguered journalist community received some long-awaited good news. The legislative assembly in the country’s Sindh province acceded to pressing demands from journalists to establish an official safety mechanism and passed a landmark legislation for the protection of media practitioners.

The ‘Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Bill, 2021’ received the provincial governor’s assent formalizing the bill’s passage into law. The legislation marks a rare but significant achievement for a country that has consistently ranked among the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. At least 158 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000 and hundreds more report facing threats and attacks each year.

At the same time, the state of impunity in crimes against Pakistani journalists remains absolute. According to Pakistani media rights watchdog Freedom Network, a partner of IMS in defending freedom of expression and offering assistance to journalists in distress, not a single killer of journalists killed has been delivered punishment.

A Freedom Network study, supported by IMS, shows not a single perpetrator was convicted in the murder investigations of 33 Pakistani journalists killed between 2013-18. Threat actors who intimidate, harass, abduct and attack journalists enjoy similar total impunity for their crimes.

New hope

Against the failure of the country’s criminal justice system to hold perpetrators to account, the provincial legislation for protection of journalists offers grounds for hope. The law makes it theoretically possible to counter impunity in crimes against journalists. Under the law, an inclusive and autonomous commission will be established to monitor threats to media workers, conduct inquiries into cases of violence against journalists and suggest punishments for perpetrators. The commission will also be able to open investigations into heinous crimes committed against journalists in the past.

The provincial legislation is remarkable because it follows a liberal interpretation of the term ‘journalist’ by including information practitioners and freelancers in its safety net. In doing so, it acknowledges the digital transformation of Pakistan’s media sector.

The law also articulates the demands of the journalist community by incorporating principles from the UN Plan of Action on the safety of journalists and affirming the right to life for Pakistani journalists under Article 9 of the country’s constitution.

Long-term engagement

The Sindh journalists’ safety law was several years in the making and the IMS-supported Pakistan Journalists Safety Committee (PJSC) has since 2017 actively supported the journalists’ community of Pakistan in this struggle, including lobbying with the parliament.

“IMS has been part of international efforts that resulted in the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and Issues of Impunity in 2012 and subsequently facilitating guidance from it for its partners in countries such as Pakistan,” Adnan Rehmat, consultant for IMS in Pakistan, says.

“Our assistance in advocacy on best practices, strong partnerships and building capacities of relevant stakeholders on making safety of journalists a national agenda has been central to the Sindh legislation being passed. Sustained engagement is the key to achieving key goals,” he adds.

The PJSC helped build consensus among stakeholders at the federal and local level in the country’s four provinces – which have the authority to enact their own laws on a range of subjects including law and order and security – that existing laws not only offered no protection to journalists from threats and attacks but also criminalized the expression of information practitioners making them vulnerable to further persecution.

The PJSC was instrumental in raising awareness among legislators about journalist safety best practices and a progressive approach to tackling impunity based on human rights standards.

A positive initial step

As a result of PJSC advocacy, including drafting of a model law that inspired the law enacted by Sindh, the new safety law makes it the government’s duty to ensure that existing national security laws are not arbitrarily used to target journalists. The law will also offer protection to journalists against the forced disclosure of their sources.

Sindh is not the only law on journalists’ safety. Two more provinces – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab – as well as the federal government are in various stages of their respective legislations on safety of journalists. The federal draft law has been passed by the cabinet and is awaiting tabling in the national parliament for passage.

Even with the Sindh law now in place, the struggle for safety of journalists in Pakistan is far from over. The commission to be formed under the journalists’ protection law needs to be operationalized with the appointment of its members, provision of funds and the formulation of its rules of business. With IMS’ support, the PJSC is now supporting the Sindh government and the province’s journalists to develop processes and guidelines for offering preventative, protective and prosecutorial services to journalists and information practitioners.