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As many as 88% of Pakistani journalists said they self-censor in their professional work and are most likely to hold back information related to religious and security matters in their reporting and personal conversations, according to new research by APC member Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD). The study, Surrendering to Silence: An Account of self-censorship among Pakistani journalists , launched during World Press Freedom Day, is based on a survey of 156 journalists from around the country. 

According to MMfD Programmes Director Sadaf Khan, "Self-censorship has become a disturbingly noticeable trend in the Pakistani media, but the details of the issue had largely been unexplored. Through this study, the organisation hopes to map perceptions about self-censorship in the Pakistani media, creating a baseline that can help understand the issue better."

The detailed findings of the study paint a grim picture of the contemporary press freedom landscape in the country. The key takeaways from the study are:

  • Pakistani journalists work in an environment that makes self-censorship difficult to avoid: Around 88% of the respondents had performed self-censorship at least once in their reporting, and nine in every 10 respondents also said they had seen their news colleagues commit self-censorship. Around 72% of the respondents thought self-censorship had increased over time in the Pakistani media. Nearly 86% of the respondents could not think of reporting without self-censorship because of the prevailing conditions in the country. Almost two in three respondents said they had been threatened or attacked for their expression, and seven in every 10 respondents said self-censorship made them feel safer.

  • Pakistani journalists exercise self-censorship in personal settings, too: Around 79% of journalists claimed they committed self-censorship in their personal online activity. Exactly half of the respondents also practised personal self-censorship offline. The journalists were mostly cautious around strangers and acquaintances on social media and in real life.

  • Journalists perceive the policies of their own news organisations as major hurdles in the way of free expression: Eight in 10 respondents blamed the policies of their own news organisations as the reason for self-censorship. This could indicate an organisational culture of self-censorship creeping into the Pakistani press. The other reasons identified by a majority of respondents included sensitive nature of information, national interest, threats of legal action, and threats of physical harm.

  • Pakistani journalists are especially likely to curtail expression about the military and religion: Respondents admitted they were most likely to self-censor information and opinions about the military and religion in their professional work and personal conversations. Around 64% and 62% of respondents were most likely to self-censor information about the security establishment and religion, respectively, in professional interactions. Nine in ten respondents said they would self-censor personal speech due to religious sensitivities.

  • Not all journalists are aware of secure digital communication but most are interested in knowing more: One third of the respondents did not know how to use encryption. However, nearly 80% of the journalists said they would like to know more about keeping their digital communication safe.

  • A popular self-censorship mitigation strategy identified by survey respondents offers encouragement for collaboration and editorial support: Only around half of all respondents said they had used a strategy to circumvent professional self-censorship, but one of the top mitigation strategies picked by them was sharing information with other reporters to ensure the news gets reported in one way or another.

The study offers recommendations for news media, civil society organisations and political parties. It urges media organisations and representative trade unions of journalists to put up a united front against self-censorship, conduct safety training for journalists, and develop transparency in their professional work.  It also calls upon the government and political parties to help end impunity in crimes against journalists and embrace press freedom in their political culture. For civil society organisations, the report recommends more research on self-censorship trends, advocacy about press freedom, and creation of training opportunities for journalists.

Read the full report here:

Media development in Pakistan is the main premise of APC member Media Matters for Democracy. They undertake policy research and advocacy for better media regulation in Pakistan, work for the acceptance and integration of digital media technologies and work towards creating sustainable citizen journalism initiatives in the country. More about them here.