Growing levels of scrutiny, pressure, and intimidation tactics on the press in both India and Pakistan have introduced a disturbing era of undeclared censorship from state and non-state actors in both countries. Curbs on freedom of press in Pakistan continue to rein in the country’s democratic feats as it struggles to maintain civilian supremacy in the face of direct and indirect military domination. In India, the declining levels of freedom for the media and press call into question the country’s democratic and secular roots.
The climate of fear and intolerance, in both countries, has been exacerbated by murders, enforced disappearances, attempted abductions, and legal action (or threat of) against journalists. Media owners on both sides of the border continue to work under pressure to self-censor, silence internal voices of dissent, omit coverage of anti-state protests and movements or face blocked distribution of paper or broadcast of the channel, denial of access to official meetings and briefings, and withdrawal of government advertising. In sensitive locations like Kashmir, internet shutdowns are common, the threat of violence against local reporters looms large and a ban on foreign correspondents has been in place. Heightened nationalism and extremism in both countries has left limited space for national debate on mainstream media. In the absence of any clearly stated ground rules, newsrooms constantly self-censor to avoid intimidation by state and/or partisan, extremist members of the public.
Pakistan remains low on the World Press Freedom Index and this year India was just two points ahead with a drop in the ranking compared to 2017. As moderate voices within journalism face diminishing space, the question for the future of South Asia is how this unchecked media censorship and threat of violence will impact democracy, secularism and potential peaceful relations between the two hostile neighbours. How are the new rules of freedom and censorship going to be written, and where will the new lines be drawn to ensure a democratic, safe, and free South Asia?