The Pakistani media has a come a long way over the years. From an industry comprising a handful of newspapers and a couple of news channels, of which two were state-owned, it now has close to 100 TV channels covering sports, local and international news, entertainment, religion, fashion, and so on.

The previous government and the incumbent can take credit for this growth and for freedom of expression. But the freedom has come at a cost. Though free to report on issues tabooed in the past it has to deal with the consequences of treading into dangerous zones.

There are pressures, unwritten codes, self-censorship policies, etc, to observe while reporting, editing and publishing or airing. The more adventurous have to be ready for punishment, which may even be death.

Imran Naeem, who runs the website says: “The pace of journalism appeared laidback before the arrival of the many television channels about a decade ago. It is now in Grand Prix mode, which means a mad dash to be first.”

To this end, journalists must be where the news is in a flash and report, no matter how harsh or dangerous the conditions. There have been instances of journalists rushing to the scene of a bomb blast, only to lose their lives or be maimed in a second explosion.

Imran observes that more journalists have been killed, been injured or disappeared in Pakistan than any other country. “Those who live to tell the story may lose their jobs, face death threats, get beaten up or even framed for doing something they never did, from petty theft at the office to blasphemy, punishable by death.”

The pressures start inside the office, the outside threats showing up much later. First, journalists in Pakistan are not well paid. To make matters worse, salaries are routinely delayed, even in some big media houses.

Then there’s the extraordinary workload. There are organisations, according to Imran, where they have to work for 16 hours at a stretch when major events break. They are on call through the day, and night, just in case. Their contracts do not say this and they are not offered extra benefits for these duties.

Badar Alam, editor of Herald, Pakistan’s most prestigious English monthly, believes the foremost pressure on most journalists is the lack of job security and poor working conditions. A tiny privileged group of top anchorpersons and editors does enjoy pay, perks and privileges on par with any senior employee in a corporate organisation; most reporters and editorial staff work on contracts that are exploitative to say the least.

Over the last few years, media organizations, especially but not exclusively television channels, have cut editorial and reporting staff. They have had no legal recourse against the loss of jobs.

Talk of pressure? There’s so much that it’s hard to detail. In an increasingly intolerant society, editors have to think long and hard before publishing anything that relates to national security, politics and religion.

Religious sensitivities run high. Increasing ethnicity and ethno-centric politics are serious problems for the media. For example, in Karachi small groups compete on the basis of narrow sub-ethnic interests. A little carelessness or journalistic slant may spell disaster for a reporter. In such circumstances, journalists have to apply censor themselves to ensure they return home safely at the end of the day.

Sometimes, Imran observes, journalists face resistance from fellow professionals. He believes smear campaigns often rob defiant journalists of their integrity and no matter what they do they are never ever able to recover the name they once had.

Adnan Rehmat, executive director of Intermedia Pakistan, identifies another major pressure, professionalism - or rather the lack of it. Unlike in the medical and legal professions, there is no holy writ in the shape of a unified, consensual code that can serve as benchmark for what is kosher and what is not for a journalist.

And because most journalists in Pakistan—over 80 per cent of the estimated 17,000—are not formally qualified, they don't come with a proper understanding of their profession as do, for example, doctors and lawyers, he contends. “Making matters worse is the fact that media organizations don't force their journalists to be professional.”

Adnan believes the social mores that media follows are pretty much what the state has inculcated through school and college textbooks that focus on the self-assumed 'holiness' of the army, judiciary and religious leaders and groups.

“These three are the general risk areas. That leaves political parties and leaders who collectively attract the criticism and wrath of the media that they cannot direct at the generals, judges and jihadis.”

The paradox of the Pakistani media for him is that it has never been freer to report, but has also lost over 80 journalists in the last decade—silenced for going too far, or not exercising restraint. At least 87 have been killed since January 2000 and over 2,000 injured, assaulted and/or, arrested in the same period.

Not one of the killers has been arrested or convicted—this has made journalists easy game. A journalist is killed in Pakistan every 50 days—an average maintained for 12 years, the highest in the world.

Asha’ar Rehman, resident editor of Dawn, Lahore, talks of the price journalists have to pay. What does ‘defiant’ stands for here? “Those who want a code and fair journalism are defiant themselves. They’re sidelined and isolated.” Those who defy the holy cows of militant organizations pay a heavier, more visible price, as a large number of journalists have found to their misfortune in Khyber PakhtoonKhwa (KPK) and Balochistan in recent times.

Aatekah Mir-Khan, a senior desk editor at Express Tribune, Lahore says the mores journalists follow depends on the newspaper. An Urdu paper, she holds, goes for sensational stories (with many gaps in reporting and unsubstantiated claims) more than an English newspaper. Within English newspapers too, the 'vision' varies. Some pay special attention to minority and human rights, others focus on government failings.

Another pressure point is a reporter getting too close to a source or having a friend or family member as the source for stories. There is a danger that the reporter's judgement might be compromised, she adds.

Badar Alam thinks hypocrisy and double standards cause the most damage. “Only a small minority of journalists and people would like to see any issue under the sun–including films, actresses, even sex—covered in the media as a manifestation of the freedom of expression; most of the rest of society frowns—and sometimes reacts and responds angrily, even violently–at critical coverage of religion, national ideology, and national security. We could also add to that sex and nudity, even when watching all types of Indian movies–good, bad and vulgar–is part of daily life and surfing sex-related stuff on the Internet, according to some surveys, a national pastime.”

As for Bollywood and Hollywood, these are considered safe subjects and in fact in recent years TV in particular has made news from Bollywood a staple of their 9 p.m. flagship news bulletin. Cultural reporting is bolder and while local sensibilities and the moral code of society are still to be respected, yes, Bollywood and Hollywood, do frequently make the cut.

Every newspaper has some kind of entertainment/ infotainment section to draw in readers. For example, Daily Times published entertainment news on the inside and infotainment news on the back page of its city section. But they’ve reversed the order. However, there’s hardly any firsthand reporting and pages are full of stories picked from wires and international newspapers' entertainment/gossip news.

Business reporting is a tricky area and there is some difference of opinion over it as well. As Adnan puts it, it is one of the saving graces of the Pakistani media. In recent years business and economic stories have become permanent features on front pages. And for good reason: a tanking economy, energy shortages, budget and trade deficits and over-reliance on loans has meant that business and economy is never far from the minds of Pakistani journalists and media consumers.

In words of Asha’ar Rehman, like the magazines that come out with daily newspapers in Pakistan are regarded as some kind of PR space, one major task of the business desk was to advertise the work of traders, industrialists and the like. This helped them have a good relationship with the newspaper and translated into advertisement for the paper. Business desks have evolved and expanded but the old link between business reporting and the business of a newspaper remains.

The business desk, he believes, is the most difficult to operate since the reactions of those who are reported could include denial of ads to the newspaper—making life difficult for the publisher. In the absence of codes and a lack of awareness about what can be, should be, reported,  businesspeople quite often resort to pressure on the paper to crush a story. This also leads to self-censorship, but this often oppressive self –censorship is not peculiar to business desk.

Aatekah talks about 'requests' for interviews with CEOs, to profile a company etc. The pressure, she says, is not so much to “not publish  a certain story” but to have certain types of stories published. There always are pitches from companies or PR firms from the companies. The WHY decides whether what you are doing is right or wrong. If a pitch has news value, there's nothing wrong with accepting it.

Amir Zia, Editor, The News, Karachi, is a strong proponent of an ethical approach to the profession and to provide journalists the professional training they so desperately need.

“In recent years, many holy cows have felt the heat from the more aggressive, vibrant media, especially news channels. Issues and topics considered a taboo in the 1990s are now open for discussion and criticism. From military ruler Pervez Musharraf to that of elected government, all have faced severe criticism—sometimes justified, at other times unjustified and highly subjective. The story does not end here. The military, its various agencies and even the judiciary are under the media microscope. This is indeed a big step forward. But there are issues which are still considered sensitive—mainly religious—where journalists tend to tread carefully.

Recently, Amir adds, key media personalities have been under fire for their alleged corruption and taking bribes, and their closeness with various state institutions, political parties and even commercial interests. Society’s watchdog must keep an eye on the black sheep in its own ranks.

“Journalism has come a long way in recent years and it would be very difficult for any institution to overturn the gains made now—especially as social media has also become a force to reckon with.”

Pressure, Amir thinks, is part of a journalist’s job and adds, “In conflict zones the pressure is much more, because between the security forces and militants, there are hardly any independent sources to depend in the far-flung and remote areas.

“The journalists operating there often lack professional training and in many cases even academic qualification, are more exposed to becoming a party or mouthpiece of this or that side. In such cases, they are often victimized by the other side.”

On threats to journalists, Amir says none of the frontline professional journalists faced life threats, beatings or prison in Pakistan in recent years. “There have been incidents in which some colleagues lost their lives or faced torture. But it is a bitter fact that it happened mainly because they were playing sides or changing loyalties after getting too close to a state institution or a militant group. Some of them even had a shady past and were known for sensational reporting, distorting facts and even cooking up quotes.”