The recent deportation of Steven Butler, Asia chief of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who landed in Lahore to attend a conference on human rights, has brought into focus the state of deteriorating press freedom in Pakistan yet again.
The country, which ranks 142 out of 180 on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, has a vibrant press but it is often controlled by the government, bureaucrats, extremists as well as its all-powerful army.
While dissenting views have always suppressed, the intervention has gone a step further — media owners who don’t restrain their coverage can end up with their newspaper sales being restricted, television broadcasts blocked and advertisements curtailed, whereas independent journalists lose their jobs and are prosecuted — even killed in some cases.
The government, allegedly on Pakistan Army’s insistence, have cut their advertisement budget for the press and television, leading to a severe crisis in the industry. Over 2,000 media personnel have lost their jobs and those who avoided the axe have had pay cuts and salary delays. Magazines and journals have been shelved and some TV channels have shut in the last year.
There’s a history of army’s interference in editorial affairs. However, the generals’ meddling in the current regime seems to be unparalleled. What began as mere requests on not giving coverage to the Taliban after the 2014 Peshawar attack, in which over 140 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed, has now reached a point of near-total control of newsrooms by the ISPR, the military’s media wing.
Harassment of journalists was particularly intensified in 2018 when the military establishment wanted the now ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to come into power.
Background conversations with newsroom managers have revealed that journalists are under unprecedented pressure from the military establishment.
Almost all mainstream television channels, newspapers and websites now toe the line — do not criticize security forces or their policies, and censor those who do.
Besides journalists, even politicians, activists and judges, who ‘crossed’ certain lines, and managed to speak the truth, have suffered in the name of “across-the-board accountability.”
Those who expose the army’s role in installing the ‘puppet’ regime of Prime Minister Imran Khan through a ‘rigged’ election, or the one-sided accountability drive initiated by the country’s corruption watchdog, are on the receiving end.
There are gagging orders on their live coverage and are booked on fake charges. While such informal directives are often conveyed through officials of PEMRA, Pakistan’s media regulatory authority, ISPR’s interference in editorial affairs has reached new heights under General Qamar Bajwa, the current army chief.
They may miss stories about the premier or his ministers but anything related to the chief of army staff and the armed forces is strictly monitored. A colonel-level officer liaises with editors and reporters (and at times publishers), and instructions related to story pegs, corrections, what to take and what to avoid are given through WhatsApp and mobile phone. Even potential stories which the military wants you to run but does not want to be quoted are shared with a key note, “without attribution please.”
Statements from ISPR, considered to be revelations from God, are mostly run without a fact-check.
On the pretext of “positive reporting,” content regulation has become higher than ever before, and editors as well as reporters being well aware of the red lines, practice self-censorship. Commentary which goes against “national interest” i.e. the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and its alleged role in political engineering, the army’s policy in Balochistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Pakistani prisoners and its policies in Yemen, or discussion on Pakistan’s flawed foreign policy vis-a-vis Kashmir, are all no-no.
While op-ed editors are asked to ‘balance’ their editorials by not commenting on ‘sensitive’ matters, critical cartoons are often rejected.
After reining in the traditional media, the state began purging the internet and social networks of content not to its liking. Pakistan made a record number of content-removal requests to Twitter in 2018.
There have also been instances of media organizations being asked to take down critical tweets by their journalists, or get their accounts deactivated temporarily.
Besides, narratives on the internet are controlled through ‘human-bots’ managed by ISPR and others — multiple accounts tweet and post in “coordinated inauthentic behavior”— to make a topic trending on social media. Content posted by these accounts include topics like the Indian government, political leaders, and military.
A number of websites, including many of those based in India which solely provide news and analysis, have also been arbitrarily banned. The blocking is denied by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, but users have complained and to no avail.
Pakistan, as our prime minister has often desired, is fast-tracking towards a system where one party rules, opposition is jailed, state institutions are controlled and media censored.
Given the uncertainties and mounting pressure, the future prospects of journalism in Pakistan remain to be seen.
M. Kamil is a pseudonym used by an established Pakistani journalist.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.