FREEDOM NETWORK STATEMENT – Support for safety of journalists and diversity of media practitioners in Pakistan

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Freedom Network an international award-winning Pakistani civil liberties organization with a focus on defending freedom of expression, promoting diversity and pluralism in media and strengthening public interest journalism, wishes to put on record its position on a recent public event it supported, a part of which has generated a public controversy.

This official statement is a bid to respond to perceptions and opinions about the event expressed on her social media account by an award-winning journalist representing women media practitioners, digital content producers and a young generation of journalists using innovative ways of telling public interest stories. She was an official invitee in a panel of discussion focusing on challenges faced by journalists from the tribal districts merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa some years ago. Her post on Facebook elicited a large number of responses to her generalized allegations of harassment at the event.

The event was held at a local hotel in Peshawar on June 26, 2024 to launch a special report produced by Freedom Network on the state of media in the merged tribal districts. Also in attendance as special guests were Muhammad Ali Saif, the government advisor on information to the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and provincial minister Adnan Qadri. The event was hosted jointly by the KP Chapter of Pakistan Journalists Safety Coalition (PJSC) and Freedom Network. Members of PJSC include representatives of prestigious media establishments like Peshawar Press Club (PPC) and Khyber Union of Journalists (KhUJ) besides various human rights groups.

The launch of the special report “Newstribes of the Northwest: Saving Journalism in Pakistan’s Tribal Districts” included a panel discussion moderated by journalist and media analyst Adnan Rehmat, who like the panellists was himself a guest and not among the organizers. The panel included Peshawar Press Club President Arshad Aziz, Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) President Qazi Fazal Ullah, journalist Wagma Feroz and Vice President Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors Tahir Farooq.

After Mr Arshad and Mr Qazi had spoken, Ms Feroz spoke of the generally difficult conditions of practicing journalism the tribal districts that are compounded for women journalists even further. Speaking about gender disparities in media, she also spoke about the challenges of women finding opportunities of membership of press clubs. This prompted the PPC president to ask her if she was referring to the Peshawar Press Club. Her response upset him, and he vocally defended the PPC’s record of being a welcoming and supportive space for its women members. The moderator asserted that just like everyone else she had a right to form and express her opinions and the right to be heard uninterrupted, and that he should allow Ms Feroz to finish sharing her views after which he would get a right of reply. But the interruption continued for a minute at least, prompting an intervention from Advisor Saif to urge him to let her speak. She then completed her presentation and left the panel.

After the last speaker of the panel had spoken, Freedom Network Executive Director Iqbal Khattak came on stage to invite the special guests – the government representatives – but before that he urged the Peshawar Press Club president to consider Ms Feroz’ application for membership if she desires it. He agreed that she and anyone who fit their eligibility criteria are welcome. During this while, she sat in the audience. After the event concluded, Mr Khattak brought Ms Feroz and Mr Aziz together in the presence of the participants for an end to any misunderstanding and both exchanged pleasantries. Both participants, along with the others, also stayed for the official lunch.

Five days later, on July 2, Ms Feroz shared a post on her Facebook page and presented her version of events. She rightly asserted that she was interrupted but did not deem it fit to mention subsequent vocal, expressive and general support she received from the audience of about 25 people, including the moderator, participants and organizers. This absence of full picture has encouraged a perception about harassment on a scale or nature that did not happen. This can be corroborated from all those present.

Freedom Network would like to emphasize that it respects everyone’s right to form and express their opinion. Both Mr Aziz and Ms Feroz were allowed to express their opinions. We believe in greater diversity and pluralism of practitioners, perspectives and opinions within the Pakistani media landscape and journalism content. We believe that there should be more women in media and journalism. This was the reason why Ms Feroz was invited – to encourage an opportunity to sit with senior leadership of the media practitioners’ community for representation of oft ignored perspectives by women journalists. Freedom Network regularly works with women journalists and only a few months ago investigated and produced a report “Unequal Newsrooms in Pakistan” looking at women’s inadequate representation within the media, calling for better conditions for them.

We would also like to assert that historically press clubs and unions in Pakistan have played a key role in ensuring freedom of expression in Pakistan and in being the vanguards in the fight for safety of journalists and media freedoms. This includes Peshawar Press Club, Khyber Union of Journalists and Tribal Union of Journalists in the case of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including tribal districts. Journalists of the region have faced the brunt of terrorism, conflict and instability for long decades and without the steadfast commitment of PPC, KhUJ and TUJ and their leaders, both past and current, the fight would have been lost. The PJSC brings these platforms together in solidarity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Freedom Network fully supports their efforts and mission to combat impunity of crimes against journalists. We continue working with all major press clubs and unions of journalists in the country. This partnership – manifested through PJSC – has successfully resulted in Pakistan becoming the first country in the world to legislate on safety of journalists.

In our partnership with these prestigious organizations, we have not come across any evidence of harassment or exploitation within them. If these come to light, we would certainly examine them. We do acknowledge, however, that these institutions would become stronger and more representative of the diversity of Pakistani media landscape with more women journalists, and we will continue supporting press clubs and unions in their efforts in this direction as well as supporting more women to join journalism.

We also believe that it is up to the press clubs and unions of journalists to be open to any queries from both fellow journalists and the civil society to explain their own policies and to generally be open to memberships to women journalists based on their own eligibility criteria. We support best practices and inclusive approaches on this subject.

The event produced good outcomes in the shape of government ministers promising to present a draft bill on safety of KP journalists in the cabinet and approval for it to be tabled in the provincial legislative assembly. The unfortunate interruption during the panel discussion – an exercise in expression of difference of opinion by both sides – can serve as an opportunity to discuss how media industry in Pakistan, representative associations of media workers and civil society can work together to strengthen the vibrancy, diversity and sustainability of media through greater women’s participation in journalism. There is strength in numbers; we need to work together while sorting out any differences that may emerge.