Ever since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has oscillated between civil society’s quest for greater press freedom and the political and military elite’s constant reassertion of extensive control over the media.
The media landscape has become extremely diversified since the state monopoly on broadcasting ended in 2002. There are now around 100 TV channels and more than 200 radio stations, which play a fundamental role in providing news and information to a population with a relatively low literacy rate (around 60%). Many daily newspapers and periodicals are published in Urdu, English and the various regional languages. The English-language press, which is mainly reserved for the urban elite, has a strong tradition of independence and serves as a showcase for the two leading media groups, Jang and Dawn. Online media are growing rapidly.
Despite changes in political power, a recurring theme is apparent: political parties in opposition support press freedom but are first to restrict it when in power. Pakistan’s media regulators are directly controlled by the government and systematically put defence of the executive government before the public’s right to information. As the military has tightened its grip on civilian institutions, coverage of military and intelligence agency interference in politics has become off limits for journalists.
Under the guise of protecting journalism, Pakistani law is used to censor any criticism of the government and the armed forces. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), created in 2002, is concerned less with regulating the media sector than with regulating the content it publishes. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), adopted in 2016, is used more to restrict online freedom of expression than to crack down on online crime. As for the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, passed in 2021, said protection is conditional on reporters adopting a certain “conduct”. As a result of these ambiguously worded laws, journalists who cross the implicit lines dictated by the authorities are exposed to heavy administrative and criminal penalties – up to three years in prison for “sedition”, for example.
Although apparently independent, the privately owned media – especially local media – are dependent on state sector ads and legal announcements for their funding, resulting in information ministries at the provincial and national levels threatening to withdraw advertising in order to influence editorial policy. Media outlets that dare to cross the red lines expose themselves to all kinds of financial reprisals. The fact that journalists’ salaries are often cut when their employers are going through financial difficulties encourages self-censorship.
Founded on the basis of Sunni Islam, the Pakistani nation is very diverse linguistically, culturally and demographically, and this diversity is reflected in its media. In rural areas, however, the media depend on the goodwill of local landowners, tribal leaders and district chiefs who are often obsessed with defending the state. The actions of non-state actors, such as fundamentalist groups and separatist rebels, also pose a threat to press freedom, while the persistence of traditional values prevents certain topics from being addressed.
Pakistan is one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists, with three to four murders each year that are often linked to cases of corruption or illegal trafficking and which go completely unpunished. Any journalist who crosses the red lines dictated by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – an intelligence agency offshoot – is liable to be the target of in-depth surveillance that could lead to abduction and detention for varying lengths of time in the state’s prisons or less official jails. Furthermore, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's leading military intelligence agency, is prepared to silence any critic once and for all.