The future of “Free Press” in South Asia

By: Asfandiyar

With governments in the region cracking down on journalists and media groups, the future of the press in South Asia seems dubious.
South Asia has a long and complicated history that has been characterized by political upheaval, social unrest, and economic difficulties. In such a situation, a free and independent press is more important than ever in supplying the public with accurate information and critical viewpoints necessary for making informed decisions. But in recent years, there has been a troubling trend of governments in the area cracking down on journalists and media outlets, employing a variety of strategies to stifle free expression and muzzle criticism. As we enter the information era, it is unclear how free press will fare in nations like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. While the world celebrates the digital revolution, these nations struggle with the progress dilemma, where tightening state control threatens the fundamental nature of democracy and press freedom.
The battle for journalistic freedom is poignantly shown by the circumstance in Pakistan. Independent media outlets are frequently shut down, journalists are threatened, and information is censored. Despite these difficulties, Pakistani journalists’ tenacity is unshakeable.
According to Dr. Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a noted Pakistani journalist and media expert, “the press is not free in Pakistan, but it is feisty.” “Though unclear, the future is not wholly gloomy. The struggle for freedom of the press will continue, but it requires international backing. The hybrid government now in place in the nation was established last year by the military, who also used propaganda weapons to stifle journalists and media organizations. These first came to light recently when the current administration outlawed the ARY and BOL media networks.
A well-known journalist named Arshad Sharif was brutally killed in Kenya. Supporters of free speech and human rights organizations believed that this would alter the environment for journalists in Pakistan. But that was only a pleasant dream. Imran Riaz, a well-known investigative journalist, has been missing for more than sixty-five days as of right now. The government and other interested parties do not support journalistic organizations’ limited investigations into various situations.
“Journalists face harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks” in Pakistan, claims the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Online censorship attempts have frequently targeted social media sites in recent years.In order to have a tight check and balance on the fourth pillar of the state, the administration in successive governments has enacted a few laws and ordinances at various times.
The scenario is quite similar when traveling over the border to India, where the administration uses the Sedition Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and the Information Technology Act to stifle dissent and frighten journalists. Reporters without Borders states that “India’s media is under increasing pressure, with journalists being targeted for their reporting on sensitive issues such as the Indian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Since the government’s repression of the farmers’ demonstrations in 2020, the situation has gotten worse.

The government’s demands to Twitter and YouTube to ban connections to a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are among the most recent authoritarian actions taken by New Delhi. In the documentary “India: The Modi Question,” it was claimed that Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riots in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister, were his fault. Most likely, in March 2023, the government imposed a 48-hour suspension on Media One, a Malayalam news station. It was claimed that the station was “critical of the Delhi Police and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),” a Hindu nationalist organization with significant links to the Modi administration.
The authoritarian grip of the Indian government is now spreading to internet independent media outlets as well. The authorities stormed The Wire’s headquarters in April of this year and detained MK Venu and Siddharth Varadarajan, two of the website’s co-founders. According to reports, The Wire’s sting operation exposing the government’s use of Pegasus malware to monitor journalists and activists led to the raid. Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub, a journalist from India says, “The intimidation and harassment faced by journalists is a new low for Indian democracy,” while talking about the fascist narrative of the Modi regime. However, we will not be silenced because the truth must be said.
Despite its rapid expansion, Bangladesh struggles to limit journalistic freedom. International criticism of the 2018 Digital Security Act’s usage against journalists and government critics has been raised. Fahmidul Haq, a professor of mass communication and journalism at the University of Dhaka, claims that the Act is an oppressive weapon that is covered up in the name of security. We’re not simply fighting the Act; we’re also fighting the dread it gives journalists. The nation’s premier, Hasina Wajid, has a special squad that deals with various offenses and intimidates anyone who speak out against the government. An explosive Aljazeera investigation uncovers how a criminal organization is collaborating with Bangladesh’s security services and has ties to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The old street mafia’s assertion that they can kidnap competitors and demand millions in bribes is exposed by undercover reporters of Aljazeera.
The Daily Star newspaper and Jamuna Television channel’s headquarters were closed by the government of Bangladesh in March 2023. The government apparently ordered the closures because the media outlets had written negative articles on how the government had handled the COVID-19 outbreak. Rozina Islam, a well-known investigative journalist, was detained by the Bangladeshi government in the same year on suspicion of leaking state secrets. Journalists and human rights organizations publicly denounced Islam’s detention, claiming it was an effort to muzzle dissenting views.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, which has been devastated by war, presents a distinct problem. The media environment has seen a significant upheaval as a result of the Taliban taking back control. The world community is waiting with bated breath to see what will happen to Afghanistan’s free press in the future. In addition to struggling with high prices and instability, Kabul has additional problems. The radicals have outlawed girls participating in educational activities. Furthermore, there is a serious attack on free journalism. There have been countless instances of journalists being harassed, jailed, or even killed by the Taliban ever since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. Two journalists from the Etilaatroz news agency were held by the Taliban in September 2021 after they covered a women’s demonstration in Kabul. After a while, the journalists were let go, but not before receiving a warning about covering delicate subjects. “Under the Taliban, we fear a return to the dark days where voices were silenced,” says journalist and human rights campaigner Samira Hamidi.
The spirit of journalism is still very much alive in these countries despite the challenges. It’s crucial to support their voices and fight for their rights as we look to the future. Global citizens, advocacy groups, and international organizations must support these journalists. It is crucial for the future of the free press in Pakistan and the nations that border it. Concerns concerning the future of the free press in South Asia have been voiced by experts. “The situation in South Asia is deeply concerning,” said David Kaye, a former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of thought and expression, “with governments using laws to silence dissent and intimidate journalists.” In addition, he said, “the use of sedition laws, anti-terrorism laws, and digital security laws to silence the media is a worrying trend that needs to be addressed.”
The international community must not watch helplessly while fundamental rights are curtailed, he continues. Since being silent is complicit, we must act. Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly, said in a similar vein that “the situation for free press in South Asia is worsening, with governments becoming increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of criticism.” Journalists, she continued, “play a crucial part in keeping governments responsible, and their work should be safeguarded, not repressed.

The time has come for the regional governments to examine and revoke any legislation that are being used to stifle dissent and intimidate journalists. This covers laws that are frequently ambiguous and subject to misuse, such as the Sedition Act, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and Digital Security Act. Governments should support legislation that guarantees the right to free speech and make sure that the right protections are in place to stop misuse. Governments must understand the importance of a free and independent press and take steps to defend it. The argument in favor of a free press is stronger than ever in the face of difficulty. Despite the uncertainty of the future, the devotion to truth and freedom is still strong. The struggle goes on, and so does the dream of a better day.

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