Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press, and there has been an urgent need for legislation to ensure the rights and safety of journalists. Local media organizations, journalists and international community have worked tirelessly to change the situation and improve working conditions. After years of lobbying, the Journalist Protection Act was finally passed by Pakistan’s National Assembly on November 8, and by the Senate on November 20. A regional version of the bill was first passed in the province of Sindh in August 2021.

The Act promises “to promote, protect and effectively ensure the independence, impartiality, safety and freedom of expression of journalists and media professionals”. To put an end to the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists and to ensure media can operate freely and independently, the bill will make the government liable for ensuring “that existing or future counter-terrorism or national security laws are not utilised arbitrarily to hinder the work and safety of journalists and media professionals”. The bill also enshrines the “right to privacy and non-disclosure of sources”, and bars anyone from interfering with the “home, correspondence, and family” of journalists.

To ensure this, an “Independent Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals” will be established. The commission will inquire into complaints against threats or acts of torture, killing, violent attacks, forced disappearance, and arbitrary arrests of journalists. It will also report and provide measures to actively investigate, prosecute and punish acts of violence and threats to journalists.

The IPI global network today welcomed the passage of the bill as a significant step forward for the safety of journalists and an end to impunity in crimes against journalists.

“The passage of the Journalist Protection Act is undoubtedly a positive moment for press freedom and journalist safety in Pakistan, and Pakistani lawmakers deserve credit for taking this important step”, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said. “But now begins the real challenge: the success of this measure depends completely on its implementation. The possibilities on paper need to be backed up by concrete action that effectively tackles the outrageous impunity for crimes against journalists in Pakistan. The commission and the relevant authorities must be subject to national and international scrutiny to ensure that this law accomplishes what it says it will do.

“We also call on Pakistan’s leaders to uphold the spirit of this legislation – meaning that all attacks on journalists and efforts to undermine trust in independent journalism must end, and that proposals such as the Pakistan Media Development Authority, which would expand government regulatory control over the press, must be dropped.”

While welcoming the Act, Trionfi also noted that it includes problematic loopholes which can be used against journalists and news outlets. In order to benefit from its terms, the law states that “all journalists and media professionals must respect the rights or reputations of others and not produce material that advocates national, racial, ethnic, religious, sectarian, linguistic, cultural or gender-based hatred, which may constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. The bill also tells journalists and media professionals to not engage in the “dissemination of material” that is “false or untrue”.

The new legislation has received praise in the media field in Pakistan, but also skepticism regarding the government’s commitment to its implementation. Critical voices have also noted that the Pakistani state itself has a history of being one of the biggest threats to press freedom in the country when it comes to legal harassment of journalists and restricting freedom of expression.

According to IPI’s Death Watch, at least 75 journalists have been killed in Pakistan due to their profession in the past two decades, and most of these cases have gone unsolved and unpunished. A highly restrictive new media law, the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) legislation, has been discussed over the past year, and it is still unclear if this reform will be introduced. It has fierce protests in- and outside of the country calling the Pakistani government to withdraw it. IPI has also condemned the bill.