Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Malfunctioning Democracy: Attacks on Pakistani Journalists Amidst the Pandemic

 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.

Friday, 12 March 2021

2020 in Review: Pakistani Students and the Pandemic

 By Asiya Jawed and Haleema Hasan 

Students in Karachi stage a protest against online classes 

In April 2020, a month after the first coronavirus cases were detected, 300,000 schools closed in Pakistan and 46 million Pakistani students were forced to stay at home. Almost six months later, schools had only partially opened whilst students and teachers were still acquainting themselves with online learning methods. 

Source: Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement 2018-19

In this blog we review what 2020 looked like for Pakistani students, exploring the intricacies of class, gender and ethnicity amidst a raging pandemic. The year also saw consistent protests, struggles for student unions and politicization of students’ demands.  As with its impacts on other segments of society, the pandemic’s impact on students has been defined by their varying vulnerabilities and privileges, and the ways that these intersect.

Source: Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measu
Our monthly observatory panels, event tracking catalogue and key informant interviews for Navigating Civic Spaces in the Time of Covid-19 highlight Pakistani students’ problems amidst a global health crisis. Academics and students informed us that marginalized students’ problems were greater due to their intersecting vulnerabilities. Advocating for their rights became an arduous task in the current climate of shrinking civic space.


Source: UNICEF, World Bank

The virus impacted students from low socio-economic backgrounds the most. The poorest households have the least access to education as the proportion of out-of-school children is highest in the lowest income quintile and rich households are more likely to use technology. Most Pakistani students can’t afford internet services or live in remote localities without reception. Despite these circumstances, educational institutions and the state chose to conduct online examinations and charge full fees even when students weren’t occupying campus spaces. 

Online learning became a logistical hassle for many living in remote and underdeveloped areas. An academic at University of Sindh, Jamshoro was shocked when she saw students in mud houses or sitting under trees to attend their online classes. At times she saw her female students sitting on the stairs in their houses because they didn’t have a private space without any noise. Substantial class differences heighten the disparities within the education sector, and female students are at a greater disadvantage.


After schools shut down, girls shouldered most of the work in the household or faced the risk of being forcefully married. However, this discriminatory period became a catalyst for several female students to voice their concerns. One of the most pertinent problems that female students raised through offline and online protests was on-going sexual harassment in educational settings. 

In November 2020, students of Karakoram International University (KIU) registered harassment complaints against the university’s scholarship officer but were instead booked on different charges and two of them even arrested. Although 300 students protested outside the Vice Chancellor’s (VC) office, they didn’t receive justice. The VC took notice of the complaints and set up a committee to probe the incident but there are many problems with such committees too. Rai Ali, a student leader, shared with us, “Female students have to be in rooms full of men and narrate what happened to them which can be an intimidating experience in itself as some of the men in those rooms would end up harassing the victim again.”

Just ten days before the KIU protest, female students studying in Islamia College Peshawar complained that the faculty and staff of the institution were sending them vulgar text messages, and harassing them under the garb of checking academic work. They held a “Girls Walk Against Harassment”, demanding the university to appoint a local person to address these complaints and the present committee to function in-line with the Harassment at the Workplace Act 2010. Other students utilized online platforms to address several harassment cases in elite institutes such as Lahore Grammar School (LGS) and Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

However, lack of gender justice in Pakistan transcends class privilege. Using online platforms has been risky for students as defamation laws are used in response to #MeToo. LUMS allegedly has a history of threatening women in such cases, with a student rightfully questioning, “[T]ell me — where do we go if not online? Who is there to listen to us?” While alumna of the school complained that the Office of Student Affairs discourages victims to file official complaints, it is also important to use existing accountability mechanisms in order to strengthen them. School administrations must understand the backlash and trauma that female students face when they come forward to complain, and build gender-sensitive committees with student representatives. 

Ethnicity and Locality

Source: Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement 2018-19
In addition to class and gender inequalities, provincial and ethnic vulnerabilities have played a role in how students were affected by COVID-19 and its restrictions. As Chart 3 demonstrates, the urban-rural divide is glaring in terms of access to online learning. Even within rural areas, learning losses differ by province (Table 1) with Balochistan largely faring the poorest.

Source: Constitution of Pakistan

Against the backdrop of staggering inequalities and a pandemic, students eventually resorted to protesting for their rights. In June, several of them were arrested for protesting in Quetta against HEC’s decision to conduct online classes despite structural failures such as power cuts and extreme dearth of internet facilities. The situation is worse for minorities like the Hazaras and those living in conflict-ridden areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where political violence and deliberate state security measures have created conditions similar to lockdowns and quarantines long before the pandemic. Critics and protesters argue that the continuing suspension of the internet especially amidst shifts to online education are a violation of the constitutional Right to Education.

Source: The Diplomat, The News, Slate

Floods during the pandemic severely impacted rural Sindh’s already flailing education system with a massive power outage and schools used as shelters. In Punjab, there are glaring differences between the northern and southern districts with the latter performing very poorly in most education indicators. COVID-19 is worsening the situation in these areas. Despite the infection risk, students and teachers are forced to go to urban areas as there are no internet services.

Apart from National Cash Transfer schemes, little has been done specifically for these areas. The authorities responded to protesting students by mostly engaging in violence. Dismayed by the outcome, students filed petitions in high courts across Pakistan, which directed the Balochistan government to form a committee to address students’ issues. The government also requested the KP high court to restore internet connections but no action on either order has been reported yet.

There were some hopeful instances in these circumstances as well; Zong Pakistan secured a contract with Universal Service Fund to provide high speed internet in some areas of rural Balochistan; In KP, UNICEF’s  advocacy led to the development of online resources and better implementation of offline learning for students; rural Sindh has been reportedly more receptive to social distancing than urban areas and a radio is being leveraged there to discuss psychological wellbeing during the pandemic. Finally, the Punjab government has legally banned withdrawing South Punjab’s Annual Development Funds which were recently increased by 35%.


These ethnically charged, gendered and class-oriented vulnerabilities do not operate in isolation. They are inextricably linked and exacerbate the impact of an event as severe as a pandemic. Baloch students not only face a dismal educational landscape but also financial constraints in accessing any available opportunities. The seats reserved for them in universities of Punjab were withdrawn and scholarships suspended between 2017 and 2020 amidst rising tuition fees and education transitioning online. After a students’ protest march in October 2020, the Governor of Punjab announced full and partial scholarships annually available to 3, 200 students from Balochistan, KP and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) at varsities in Punjab. Although hopeful, we are yet to see these plans materialize.

Source: The Express Tribune, The Nation, The News, Twitter

Amongst students from these localities and class backgrounds, women are at a further disadvantage. For instance, in Sindh, less than 10% of tertiary students are women. The government also has a class-based response to harassment cases. The Punjab School Education Minister promised to deal with harassment complaints by LGS students personally and the Minister of Human Rights took notice of the allegations at the two “premier private institutions”. After students and alumna conducted a sustained online campaign, four employees of LGS were terminated while students from public universities were ignored, vilified or arrested.

Politicizing Students’ Vulnerabilities

Students demands and actions were often politicized by both the incumbent government and the opposition for their political expediency. While PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto supported MDCAT students, criticizing Pakistan Medical Council’s bureaucratic inefficiencies, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz attended Baloch students’ protest. Both are part of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 opposition parties formed in September 2020. Our interview with Rai Ali revealed that shrinking civic space has forced students to turn to PDM even though they suspect the alliance will remain anti-establishment only until it assumes power itself. 

Recommendations and Conclusion

Source: BBC

It has been a long, trying year for students. However, trying situations are also opportunities for imagining better systems. Some ways to further affect change in the education sector include supporting the ed-tech industry, crowdsourcing and curating content akin to the Spanish Ministry of Education, further scaling up the use of radio for education, and investing in public-private partnerships similar to the model in Uruguay. Additionally, Mexico’s Telesecundaria is a good example for Pakistan to improve the quality of the Teleschool which was widely available but incomprehensible. 

Source: Budget 2020-2021

However, any response strategy is incomplete without addressing the demand for student unions. In 1984, student unions were banned because of their progressive work for students and the wider civil body. The pandemic has intensified the students’ perpetual need for a collective space. Rai highlights, “The teachers in our university have a union, the guards have a union but the only union that is missing is the student union… there are 95% students in a university but those 95% aren't given a chance to represent themselves.”


For students, 2020 has been rife with uncertainty, learning losses and protests. As their problems spiralled, Covid-19 became an impetus for them to push for their rights. However, their demands haven’t been fully addressed despite consistent activism. It is imperative that the state revives student unions, invests in long-term solutions and addresses the inequities marring the education sector now more than ever.