Opinion & Analysis
The marginalized group in Pakistani media6:01 PM, August 8, 2019
Pakistan: Christian journalists are being ostracized in what the Church touted as the Year of Dialogue.
It has been six months since Lahore Archdiocese announced that 2019 would be the Year of Dialogue.
Programs have been held for spouses, families, communities, priests, parish groups, pastoral councils, for interreligious dialogue, especially on Islamic-Christian dialogue. I also invited a Dominican priest, a Hindu activist, a cleric and a Sikh youth for an interview with Catholic TV Pakistan.
So far, there has been no call to those who risk their lives to give voice to the religious minorities often silenced by religious extremism and persecution, namely Christian journalists. Even the guest speakers for the 53rd World Communications Day, celebrated last month at the National Commission for Social Communication, included four priests and a cleric.
The speakers urged on “spreading only good news and blocking the bad.” The focus seemed more on censorship than supporting church journalism and encouraging positive criticism. A few Catholic journalists attended, but only in the audience.
Christian communications professionals are a rare breed in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. “There are only about 70 non-Muslim media workers in Punjab province alone. These also include camera operators,” a Lahore-based historian told me.
Pakistan has been ranked 142nd in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders. The pressure tactics include anonymous phone calls, visits from officers in plain clothes, the blocking of advertisements, changing the number of the channel on local cables or simply shutting them down. According to veteran journalists, the situation has worsened during the present government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Christian journalists also face bigger challenges than ordinary media workers amid the ongoing clampdown on press freedom.
Several Christian journalists have already sought asylum abroad. A Catholic newsletter recently banned the use of several words, including peace (yes, you read that correctly), interfaith and rights. To make matters worse, one of the Catholic bishops in Pakistan follows a strict policy of not speaking with the media.
A recent study by Freedom Network, an independent Pakistani media and civil liberties watchdog, said there was “an environment of general hostility and widespread intolerance, especially when it comes to either discussion of religion, religious minorities, gender and politics or when minorities are visible and active — which makes them an easy target online.”
I recently had the chance to attend a training for minority media workers in the country. Censorship, harassment, intimidation, bullying, detention, torture, legal action and even murder were among the key threats identified for both journalists and activists. All of them identified press clubs and the provincial union of journalists among external groups they could contact to share experiences and seek help in case of any threat.
The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), the Catholic Church’s human rights body in Pakistan, was the only support group identified for Christians. There is no specific body for Catholic media workers to address their challenges, relocate them to safer places, provide medical aid in case of emergencies or even host an evening tea for them.
This reminded me of the Catholic Broadcasting Association (CBA) of Lahore Archdiocese, founded in 1956, which introduced many media talents, writers, singers and actors to the mainstream media industry in Pakistan. It also organized Christian programs for the annual three hours of television and radio time (one hour each on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter).
The context that Father Peter Woodruff describes in his book “Columbans on Mission” is quiet upsetting.
“In 2003, while Father Colm was out of the country, our opponents within the Catholic Church managed to persuade the new bishop to put another person in charge of the Catholic Broadcasting Association. Without any consultation we were relieved of our role on the board of CBA and Father Colm was replaced by a local Pakistani priest and formally thanked for his services in the Lahore diocesan newsletter,” he said.
“Many of those in the world of media with whom we had worked were quite upset about the decision.”
The last meeting for the revival of the CBA, later called the Pakistan Catholic Press Association, was held at the minor seminary in May 2016. It was never heard from again.
Since dialogue is a communication tool, the proponents of “Year of Dialogue” should also host similar capacity-building sessions on safe journalism, risk mitigation and connecting with like-minded communities.
The event — or series of consultations — in 2019 can also be pegged to two major media-related anniversaries in Lahore Archdiocese, i.e. the 90th anniversary of the fortnightly Catholic Naqib, the oldest Urdu-language Catholic magazine, and the 10th anniversary of Catholic TV Pakistan.
Resurrecting previous platforms, or even forming a new think tank, can help encourage those who risk their lives to proclaim church services and dig out good stories amid the gloom of human rights abuses. Christian journalists suffer more than other media workers because of their specific beat, their limited scope and their religion. We are not against the Church.
Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.
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