Malfunctioning Democracy: Attacks on Pakistani Journalists Amidst the Pandemic


Published Date:  

 By: Asiya Jawed

Protest after attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor in May 2021. 
Photo credit: Khizer Habib

In Pakistan, press freedom has been under strain for several years and the space for journalists has been specifically shrinking since the 2018 elections. During 2020, it was vital for the public to receive accurate news regarding the pandemic. But as the government built a narrative of effectively handling the crisis, journalists were harassed, kidnapped, beaten and arrested in an effort to silence critical voices. In this blog, I will discuss how Pakistani journalists were attacked for fact-based reporting during a raging pandemic, and the tactics used to curb dissident voices in our so-called democratic state.


The discussion below is based on research conducted at the Collective to examine changes in civic space during Covid, as part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. We hosted observatory panels with academics, activists and human rights defenders, conducted key informant interviews with relevant stakeholders from impacted arenas and carried out a year-long media tracking to analyse how Pakistan’s civic space evolved amidst the pandemic.

Undermining Democracy

Along with the legislature, executive and judiciary, media is considered to be the fourth pillar of a democracy. An independent media is an essential condition for a democratic state. The degeneration of freedom of press in Pakistan can be measured through the World Press Freedom Index where the country slipped by six points from 139th position in 2017 to 145th in 2020 out of the 180 countries measured.

Pakistan is considered a “hybrid regime” - a term specifically used to explain the current PTI-led coalition government. The ruling party is accused of being an artificially bolstered civilian vessel of the military establishment, which uses the facade of a functioning democracy to preserve its political influence. Even though the government mostly denies such claims, it also takes pride in working with the military in several circumstances - such as fighting the pandemic.


On 13th March 2020, the National Coordination Committee (NCC) was set-up without Cabinet approval and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), a civilian organization headed by a serving lieutenant general, was considered the lead operating agency to campaign against the virus. Soon after, National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) was set up as the implementing body of NCC but due to its sorely disproportionate composition, with unelected individuals in key positions, the Parliament had very little voice in its deliberations. Yet it continued to handle the pandemic, urban flooding in August 2020, and the vaccine rollout. As government centralized the dissemination of pandemic data through NCOC, journalists increasingly questioned the state’s handling of the pandemic.

Contesting the Covid-19 Narrative

As immense power was given to the establishment to regulate the growth of the virus in the country, their response also had to be portrayed as a victory. During this time, journalists were considered front-line workers because they were risking their lives to report accurate information to the public. But we found consistent efforts to suppress voices critical of the state.


As Pakistan was recovering from the first wave of Covid-19 in July 2020, Matiullah Jan, a prominent journalist outspoken in his critique of the government on a number of issues was abducted by unidentified security officials in the capital in broad daylight. One reason suspected for his abduction was Jan’s support for the politicized attack on a senior judge of the Supreme Court, Qazi Faez Isa, who is under investigation for underreporting his family’s assets. However, according to Jan’s account, the abductors suggested they may have picked up the wrong man. A few days later, without any announcement or reason given, a para-military force called the Rangers, raided the Karachi Press Club. This added to the perception that journalists need to be careful not to cross the ‘miltablishment’ – a popular term for the combined military-civilian interests that support the status quo and resist democratization.


In the following months, other journalists were also arrested and charged for raising their voice against the establishment. Bilal Farooqui, a senior journalist at Express Tribune, was taken into custody for sharing “highly provocative” posts on his social media platforms against the Pakistani Army. Absar Alam, a journalist and ex-chairman of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was charged with high treason by Jhelum Police for doing the same.

Almost ten days after these events, the ruling party introduced the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2020 to propose an amendment to section 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code. It states, “Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed Forces of Pakistan or a member thereof, shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both.” Even after backlash from the opposition, the National Assembly approved the bill in April 2021.

The bill actively disregards the constitutional rights of Pakistani citizens, further dismantling the foundation of democracy. Even though Article 19 of the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, and upholds freedom of the press, this is subject to restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the security or defence of Pakistan. This loophole helped the interior ministry argue in support of the 2020 Bill. The working paper presented with the amendment bill states, “The incidents of defaming the armed forces have increased in the country and some disruptive elements, for furtherance of their political objectives, engage in this undesirable practice which is very defamatory and demoralizing for the Armed Forces of Pakistan.” However, this isn’t the first time that the defamation card has been played to silence journalists. Section 20 of the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 Act criminalises the act of publicly exhibiting, displaying or transmitting information one knows “to be false, and intimidates or harms the reputation or privacy of a natural person.”


Harassment of Women Journalists


The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has scrutinized both male and female journalists for reporting against the state, but online harassment against female journalists belonging to different press and television outlets increased during the pandemic as they began reporting on social media. Benazir Shah, Editor at the Geo News, has been collecting information about the virus since 27th February 2020 - when Pakistan reported its first Covid-19 case. Since she didn’t receive reports from the government in the initial stages of the disease spread, she called hospitals, laboratories and graveyards to collect and report the number of cases and deaths.

Shah believes that the ruling party began a coordinated campaign against her, and other women journalists who reported about the virus or questioned the government. “Since I began Covid reporting […] my timeline would just be flooded with abuses”. During my interview with her she claimed that the harassment campaign is intended to “target women journalists so much that they stop tweeting.” The state is so sensitive to critical Covid-19 coverage because it has tried very hard “to paint this entire pandemic and their response to it as a success.” The ruling party desperately needs this “win”, therefore they challenge honest reporting and harass women journalists to curb their voices.

Similarly, Allia Zehra, a journalist from Naya Daur published an article in early March highlighting PM’s leadership deficit during the Covid-19 pandemic. She has since been trolled many times on Twitter by anonymous accounts supporting the ruling party, and has received rape and death threats on the platform. Zehra shares, “The Covid situation exposed the government's incompetence and its inability to deal with such a situation - which is what we reported… And, of course, women journalists are an easier target.”


With close controls on mainstream media, it is also becoming difficult for journalists to post information on social media. Shah explains, A lot of us now are also scared of tweeting because there are journalists, male journalists mostly, who have been charged under PECA. What if any of our tweets are pulled out and used against us or distorted or a case registered against us? I think that fear is very real.”

Shrinking Space for Journalists


Indeed in September 2020, male journalist Asad Ali Toor was booked under PECA’s section 11 (hate speech), 20 (offences against dignity of a person) and 37 (unlawful online content) for spreading “negative propaganda” against the state. Nine months later, he was attacked in his own apartment by three armed men allegedly from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency who questioned Toor about the “sources” of his income and funding. The attack led to a bill tabled by opposition legislators to protect journalists on 21st May 2021 in the National Assembly, which is now in Senate.

Amidst the outcry of Toor’s arrest, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary claimed during BBC’s hardtalk that there was a “history” of people accusing intelligence agencies to receive asylum abroad. His comments shadowed former President General Musharraf’s insensitive remarks in 2005, that Pakistani women cry rape in order to seek asylum abroad. If we were living in a well-functioning democracy, this notion wouldn’t have even existed.


The ruling party has deliberately silenced journalists and muzzled the media to protect its bemusing policies and decisions during the pandemic. Journalists are targeted by the state for trying to provide the public with timely and accurate information. Their arrest and harassment is further tightening shrinking civic space, jeopardizing the healthy critique of the state so integral to building a functioning democracy.