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Censorship in Pakistan

CASE STUDY: Are Journalists Obligated to Speak Up?

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Bill Kerr / CC BY-SA 2.0

For many, there is little debate needed to reach the conclusion that Pakistan’s state sanctioned press intimidation is too harsh. One of the most pressing challenges to journalism ethics in Pakistan focuses on what the press is or is not obligated to do in response. Contemporary Pakistani laws combined with military and administrative aggression toward journalists have created a climate of self-censorship where journalists no longer act as watchdogs and informants for fear of reprisal. Self-censorship “is the worst kind of censorship, because it is done out of fear” said longtime Pakistani journalist, Ghazi Salauddin (Gannon, 2018). In response to the hostile media environment, journalists might persevere, seek greater independence, move online, or adapt to regulation, but each option is not without its own ethical considerations.

 

Cyril Almeida—assistant editor and columnist for Dawn—was recently named the International Press Institute’s 2019 World Press Freedom Hero for “his tenacious coverage” in reporting of the relationship between the state and militant groups and “tremendous resolve in tackling—at great risk to himself—deeply contentious issues that are nevertheless of central importance to Pakistan’s democracy” (Hashim, 2019). Almeida wrote a weekly column—discontinued in January—and interviewed an exiled former Prime Minister. As punishment for his coverage and refusal to back down from criticizing the government and military, Almeida faces treason charges, restrictions on his movement, and intimidation. Perseverance provided the citizenry with much needed information but cost Almeida much of his freedom.

On the other hand, press organizations may seek greater independence through financial divestment. Steven Butler from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argues Pakistan’s pressure on journalists comes in part “though the owners of media properties” (Gannon, 2018). Mohammad Ziauddin of the Pakistan Press Foundation explains that many of the business people running Pakistani media are there “not to make money, not to serve the public, but to have clout” (Gannon, 2018). In the last year, there have been layoffs and programming cuts associated with “the worst financial crisis the media industry has seen since it was liberalized,” according to Afzal Butt of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (Ali, 2018). The crunch was caused by a drastic cut in government spending on media advertising because, as Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch Pakistan explains, Pakistani news organizations “still rely heavily on government advertisements and subsidies” (Ali, 2018). The huge step back by the administration at once makes TV stations less beholden to government funds and thus government wishes but also makes them cash poor. As Butler asserts, “while reliance on government revenues is not a healthy model for press freedom, the sudden cutbacks have imposed extreme hardship on the media, which has had basically no time to adjust business models” (Gannon, 2018).

A third option for Pakistani journalists is to move online to less regulated and less capitally driven venues. Unfortunately, the government is cracking down on social media use by citizens but especially by journalists. They repeatedly ask companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove posts and pages and to suspend accounts. Journalist Taha Siddiqui moved to France after he was attacked but still cannot escape censorship from the Pakistani government. Reportedly, Twitter suspended his account twice in just three days because of “objectionable content that was in violation of Pakistani law” (Gannon, 2018). Several other journalists still in Pakistan, like Murtaza Solangi, have received similar notifications from Twitter that the government reported their tweets for violating the law. The problem of digital censorship is exacerbated by commonly-held impressions because, as highlighted by Asad Beyg of Media Matters for Democracy, “most accredited journalists bodies don’t recognize digital journalism as ‘real’ journalism” (Chaudry, 2018).

The CPJ advises news media owners and editors to strengthen security protocols and training, enhance self-regulation to instill confidence in accuracy and fairness, and universally condemn attacks, threats, and intimidation, potentially via professional guidelines. Almeida himself says the line of what is acceptable is drawn in terms of specificity; conflict between press and state occurs “if granular detail and specifics are reported on or commented on” (Hashim, 2019). Perhaps a solution then is to provide citizens with broad overviews of the issues and trust them to find more information for themselves, allowing journalists to serve as informants, generally, without risking censure or worse. But, if the press cannot provide details, who will? Yet, when, according to the CPJ, Pakistan’s military “restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters” (Hashim, 2019), how much can we ask journalists to do?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are journalists obligated to be the public watchdogs of governmental institutions even when it puts them at risk?
  2. Should social media companies participate in state censorship of journalism in adherence with national laws, or should they refuse such government control of information?
  3. What is the best way for journalists to fight state censorship of the press?
  4. Is there an ethical obligation for non-journalist citizens to intervene on behalf of the press? Put another way, is the reading public compelled to defend the freedoms of those institutions from which we benefit?
  5. What concerns might be raised by approaches that protect journalists by relying upon readers to gather more information outside of a vaguely-reported story?

Further Information:

Umer Ali, “The Pakistan government’s financial squeeze on journalism.” Columbia Journalism Review, December 20, 2018. Available at: https://www.cjr.org/analysis/journalism-pakistan.php

Suddaf Chaudry, “Pakistan: Censorship by stealth.” New Internationalist, November 15, 2018. Available at: https://newint.org/features/2018/11/15/pakistan-censorship-stealth

Kathy Gannon, “Pakistan’s journalists complain of increasing censorship.” Associated Press, December 26, 2018. Available at: https://www.apnews.com/09e9a7466e9c4c6f878e424833e5f03c

Asad Hashim, “Pakistan’s Cyril Almeida named IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero.” Al Jazeera, April 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/pakistan-cyril-almeida-named-ipi-world-press-freedom-hero-190424094705064.html

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Changing Comments or Changing Minds?

CASE STUDY: Protesting Censorship in Pakistan through Algorithmic Alterations

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DTpic-600x129On April 17, 2016, the Daily Times—a major English-language newspaper in Pakistan—published an editorial on the nation’s controversial blasphemy law. The law, according to Human Rights Watch, carries a mandatory death penalty for blaspheming against Islam. The article was published in the wake of renewed controversy over Aasia Bibi, the first woman ever convicted and sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in November 2010 for an incident in 2009. All told, no person convicted of blasphemy has been executed, but 53 people have been killed in extra-judicial violence (Ijaz, 2016).

Given the controversial nature of the law and intentionally provocative publication of the editorial, the Daily Times anticipated a deluge of comments from online readers. The article was ideal for launching the “Free My Voice” campaign. Most contemporary news outlets have websites and the majority of story webpages include a comment feature where users can post feedback, opinions, or questions below a piece of reporting. While there are some sites that moderate comments—deleting those deemed inappropriate or editing for clarity—it is not common practice to meaningfully alter the reader’s message.  That is exactly what happened on the Daily Times editorial. The Daily Times teamed up with ad agency Grey Singapore and free speech organization ARTICLE 19 to launch the “Free My Voice” campaign as a way to protest restrictions on press liberty.

When users tried to comment on the blasphemy editorial, an algorithm automatically reversed the meaning of their post. For example, a comment written to say “the author is correct. The current laws in Pakistan are a distortion of Islam” would instead read “the author is wrong. The current laws in Pakistan aren’t a distortion of Islam” (Smith, 2016). No matter how many times a comment was typed, it would reverse meaning. Readers could not leave a comment that accurately reflected their position. Eventually, potential posters were “led to a landing page to sign a petition or donate toward the Free My Voice campaign” (Hicks, 2016).

According to the Daily Times, the “statements were altered, real-time, on the medium they would least expect censorship to happen—the comment box.” They furthered that the point of the program was to make commenters “experience censorship first-hand to make them feel the frustration of what it is like to lose [a] fundamental right” (Smith, 2016). In a story they published about the project, the Daily Times explained censorship is common in Pakistan; it is ranked as the fourth most dangerous country for journalists by the International Federation of Journalists. They also deem the blasphemy law one of the “country’s biggest threats to free speech” (Smith, 2016).

In addition to the blasphemy law, the project was a response to a newly approved Electronic Crimes Bill, which gave the Pakistani government greater power to block the spread of information, potentially arbitrarily. Tahmina Rahman, Regional Director for ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia, expressed hope the “collaboration will demonstrate the pernicious nature of censorship that so often goes unseen but has untold consequences for society” (ARTICLE 19, 2016). Shehryar Taseer, the Daily Times publisher, justified the project saying “we all have to take a stance against censorship,” which is becoming “a global issue” (Smith, 2016).

The idea was to make citizens who might take their freedom of speech for granted experience the same censorship that stifles the press, motivating them to fight back on behalf of journalists. However, there is a potentially unacknowledged irony in censoring citizens engaged with the news to highlight the problem of censoring the press. Citizens are not being directly silenced—prevented from speaking—but censored through forced alteration of their words, words still attributed to them through a username and photo next to the posted comment. The project risks falling into the same ethical trap it claims to oppose, thus alienating citizens who might otherwise support them, especially in a climate where some comments or their engineered opposites may be politically controversial. The Daily Times project could put citizens in risky social or legal territory. “Free My Voice” potentially strips readers of their autonomy in an effort to regain journalistic integrity. While many would agree that the pursuit of a free press is admirable, some might worry about the ethical value of the tactics used by the Daily Times and its collaborators. To what extent can actual and unsuspecting readers be used in a news outlet’s effort to bring public attention to common, but sometimes unnoticed, curtailments of media freedom?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the “Free My Voice” discussion harmfully limit discussion of the blasphemy law? What are potential worries about using an algorithm to change the meaning of reader comments?
  2. Should press organizations like the Daily Times protest censorship so directly if it risks further restrictions of their freedoms and ability to provide the public with information?
  3. What obligation, if any, do citizens have to donate, sign petitions, or otherwise participate in protests by journalists?
  4. Is censoring, or forcefully altering, citizen comments an ethical way to critique government censorship?
  5. Do acts of protest have to have the consent of all involved, or all affected by the protest?

Further Information:

ARTICLE 19, “Pakistan: ARTICLE 19 and Daily Times bring censorship home for online readers.” ARTICLE 19, April 17, 2016. Available at: https://www.article19.org/resources/pakistan-article-19-and-daily-times-bring-censorship-home-for-online-readers/

Robin Hicks, “Agency’s algorithm flips sentiment of comments in article about Pakistan’s blasphemy law.” Mumbrella Asia, May 30, 2016. Available at: https://www.mumbrella.asia/2016/05/grey-singapore-idea-for-pakistan-newspaper-inverts-sentiment-of-comments-for-press-freedom-message

Saroop Ijaz, “Facing the death penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan.” Human Rights Watch, October 12, 2016. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/12/facing-death-penalty-blasphemy-pakistan

Sydney Smith, “Pakistani newspaper alters readers’ comments to make censorship point.” iMediaEthics, May 31, 2016. Available at: https://www.imediaethics.org/pakistani-newspaper-alters-readers-comments-make-censorship-point/

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 20, 2020


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Fake News and Real Tensions

CASE STUDY: The Impacts of Misinformation in South Asia

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India and Pakistan are two nuclear powers locked in a decades-long border conflict with spurts of cross-national violence ranging from terrorist operations to full-blown war. In February 2019, a suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization killed 40 paramilitary police officers in Kashmir. Two weeks after the attack, India launched retaliatory action against what it claimed was a terrorist camp within the rival state’s borders. Pakistan then shot down an Indian fighter plane and captured the pilot in response. The pilot was later returned to India.

Throughout the rising tensions and violence reflected in this episode was a relatively new element of the contemporary Indo-Pakistani conflict: fake news. Both national governments, news media in both countries, and social media accounts operated by citizens and trolls alike engaged in widespread and unchecked dissemination of misinformation. The fake news included inflated body counts, mislabeled photographs from previous conflicts, and manufactured gore like an image of a “bucked filled with mutilated body parts, mislabeled as the remains of a dead Indian soldier” (Bagri, 2019).

According to Govindraj Ethiraj, journalist for the fact-checking site Boom, “the wave of misinformation after the Pulwama attack was driven by inflamed emotions, overanxious media on all sides, [and] the desire to use this as a political weapon” (Bagri, 2019). The influx of fake news was made worse because “unfortunately mainstream media organizations both in India and Pakistan have failed to play their roles responsibly,” said Ashok Swain of Uppsala University while describing the back and forth between state agencies and media organizations  (Thaker, 2019). Speaking to their role in the explosion of fake news, a Twitter spokesperson advised that “everyone has a role to play in ensuring misinformation doesn’t spread on the internet” (Phartiyal, 2019). Regardless of who is responsible for the misinformation, Pratic Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, argues, “during such a time, when people’s sensitivities are involved, people are more vulnerable and gullible” (Bagri, 2019).

However, this gullibility may be advantageous in preventing the two nations from going to war. Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute explains that “the fact that both governments have effectively been able to create these information bubbles” where “everybody’s willing to believe their own version … means that both sides can declare victory to their people and go home” (Bagri, 2019). Of course, this is all taking place in a climate where misinformation has “led to mass beating and mob lynchings” among communities in South Asia (Phartiyal, 2019). It is then unsurprising that a spokesperson for the Central Reserve Police Force said fake news during such a situation “had the potential to create communal tension and lead to violence” (Bagri, 2019).

At the same time, the identification of fake news is a war in and of itself. Those fighting fake news in South Asia have even been described as “a line of defense for this fifth generation warfare” by Shahzad Ahmed of “Bytes for All,” a Pakistani digital rights group (Jorgic & Pal, 2019). But the best outcome of that war on the Indian subcontinent remains unclear. Despite the risks of misinformation, Dhume holds firm on the positive side effects of certain kinds of fake news. He says, “paradoxically, the over-zealous Indian media and cowed Pakistani media may help prevent escalation of conflict” because “Indian TV is happy to run giddy stories about ‘hundreds’ of terrorists killed” and “Pakistani journalists won’t question their army’s claim that nothing much was hit,” meaning that “everyone gets to save face, and in south Asia face matters—a lot” (Thaker, 2019). If fake news involves illusion, might there be some illusions that are helpful in South Asia’s dreams for peace—or do they all eventually lead India and Pakistan to wake up at war? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the challenges of defining “fake news?” What values are in conflict in this case?
  2. Is it ever ethically acceptable to spread misinformation? What if one spreads it unknowingly?
  3. Who is responsible for ensuring the information environment is as accurate as possible? To what lengths must they go to do this?
  4. What are the conflicts that may arise if social media or government attempts to control the spread of fake news on social media?

Further Information:

Drazen Jorgic and Alasdair Pal, “Facebook, Twitter sucking into India-Pakistan information war.” Reuters, April 2, 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-pakistan-socialmedia/facebook-twitter-sucked-into-india-pakistan-information-war-idUSKCN1RE18N

Sankalp Phartiyal, “Social media fake news fans tension between India and Pakistan.” Reuters, February 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-kashmir-socialmedia/social-media-fake-news-fans-tension-between-india-and-pakistan-idUSKCN1QH1NY

Aria Thaker, “Indian media trumpeting about Pakistani fake news should look in the mirror first.” Quartz India, February 27, 2019. Available at: https://qz.com/india/1561178/media-in-india-and-pakistan-share-fake-news-amid-border-conflict/

Neha Thirani Bargi, “When India and Pakistan clashed, fake news won.” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2019. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-india-pakistan-fake-news-20190315-story.html

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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