Pakistan's media forced into self-censorship
22 Aug 2019
Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC on July 23, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Institute of Peace)

Since its liberalisation in 2002, the media landscape of Pakistan has been one of the most vibrant and varied in South Asia. Pakistan is home to both long-running traditional newspapers like Dawn and many homegrown television and social media news coverage channels. 

However, in the run-up to the 2018 elections, interference and censorship by the military establishment dramatically increased. Journalists have faced harassment and interference, pressure on media owners is common, and the government has taken to jamming the signals and interrupting the distribution of news it dislikes. At the same time, the media faces a growing lack of trust from the Pakistani public, and economic pressures have contributed to what some observers are calling an internal “crisis.”

Index on Censorship’s Sophia Paley spoke with a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore, who agreed to give his own impressions of censorship in Pakistan. He insisted on anonymity, explaining that he feared reprisals from the military. Below is their interview, edited for brevity and clarity: 

Index on Censorship: During the run up to the 2018 presidential elections, the government of Pakistan intimidated the media into employing an unprecedented level of self-censorship. How does this new form of censorship differ from the old, more traditional form, and which do you think is worse for Pakistan?

Journalist: The censorship was enforced by the Pakistani military. Some military officers ran Whatsapp groups and social media campaigns urging people not to vote for Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and Bilawal Bhutto’s PPP as well. At the same time, Pakistan’s superior judiciary, led by the then Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, clamped down on media coverage during the trial of Nawaz Sharif. I believe that judges in Pakistan are often blackmailed by the military, and the military is used to getting favourable decisions. 

Prior to the election, Ahmed Noorani and Matiullah Jan were attacked, and several other (critical) journalists were threatened with death by ISI. News stories questioning the military and judiciary from dozens of journalists were pulled. The current censorship is done in the name of Prime Minister Imran Khan, but it is widely believed that he is only a spokesman for the military.

Index: CPJ and RSF have reported that the number of attacks on journalists is decreasing, but the prevalence of harassment and censorship is nonetheless increasing. Why have we seen a shift away from lethal to nonlethal attacks, and what does it mean?

J: This is true. Physical attacks have dropped because physical elimination is dangerous and causes blame to be directly assigned to the military. The censorship is now forced through media owners. The Pakistani military has perfected this art. They directly call media owners and tell them to stop their employees from tweeting anything critical of the army. If tweets and posts are not deleted, the military will force TV channels off of cable within minutes. Geo News, Abb Tak, Channel 24 have all faced shutdowns across Pakistan in recent months after their aired critical shows or gave coverage to Maryam Nawaz and Asif Ali Zardari. There is a rule in the news rooms that you cannot criticise the military, Imran Khan, or the IMF, and you should fully support the economic policies of the government for a “new Pakistan”. 

Several journalists have lost their jobs, and several others’ jobs are in danger. Talat Hussain had to leave his job at Geo because he was critical of the military. Murtaza Solani, Nadeem Nusrat, and Shahzeb Jilani all lost their jobs. Cyril Ameida cannot write his column in Dawn, and he was even charged with treason. Babar Sattar, Ammar Masood and several other leading columnists cannot write anything that goes against the approved narrative.

Any TV channel that doesn’t oblige gets its revenue pulled by the advertising agencies. The calls are made directly by the military. The government gives the most revenue to the channels it favours, so there is an economic squeeze around the media by the government and military combined.

Index: Dawn (one of the most respected and popular Pakistani newspapers) recently published an article asserting that the future of Pakistani media must be digital. However, as Dawn acknowledges, there are obstacles involved in shifting from something like TV to digital print media considering Pakistan’s relatively lower internet penetration and literacy rates. Do you believe that digital media is a viable solution to the current economic crisis in the Pakistani media?

J: The future is digital, but in Pakistan that will take a long time to happen due to poverty and illiteracy. Millions in rural areas have never had access to the internet and their only source of information is state-owned media and the propaganda it churns out. Whatsapp has helped to some extent, but again, due to poor internet connection and other issues, it will take decades. In urban areas, there has been progress to some extent. Several journalists, hounded out of jobs by the military, have set up their own Youtube accounts. They are using Twitter and Facebook to air their views. That’s the only medium they are left with because outlets owned by regular media owners are not allowed to accommodate their views.

Recently, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) mused about potentially banning social media sites carrying “blasphemous content”. The actual objective is to have social media sites on the Chinese and Arab model, where criticism will not be entertained and only the state narrative will be propagated. 

Index: There is a lack of trust or goodwill between rival Pakistanti journalists, opposing TV networks, and even factions within media workers’ unions. Do you consider this a problem? What effect, if any, does this have on those journalists, and the Pakistani media industry more broadly?

J: This is a huge problem. Some TV anchors churn out whatever is told to them by the military and its media managers. TV stations attack other media houses, accusing them of treason, being anti-Islam and being foreign agents. Pakistan’s ARY TV called rival channel Geo an agent of India, the CIA and Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency), and ran a campaign against Geo for over a year in 2014. Geo sued ARY TV in London and won the defamation case, which cost ARY about £3 million. Subsequently, Ofcom forced ARY to shut down in the UK

These days, at least three channels are dedicated to attacking everyone from the media and opposition who doesn’t agree with Imran Khan’s policies. Declarations of treachery, treason and blasphemy are used as a political tool by these channels on behalf of Imran Khan’s government and the military.  Those with dissenting opinions are called agents of anti-Pakistani sentiment, anti-Islam forces generally, India, America, Israel, you name it. Only a few anchors are considered neutral; most of the rest are aligned with the ruling PTI. The media industry is completely divided and the middle space has shrunk. There are several media unions and they are not on the same page. It’s a gloomy scenario. 

Index: One thing that seems to have united these factions is their opposition to the consolidation and expansion of government regulation of the media under a proposed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA). Do you see the government attempting to push through the opposition and revive this plan, or attempt something similar to it in the future? If so, how might they do so?

J: The media houses and unions and journalists are divided on this. Anchors and journalists linked with the military support more regulation and setting up courts, whose aim is to create a wedge between journalists and owners, and further tighten control of media houses through selecting judges who will do the bidding of the military. This plan of regulating the media is the brainchild of the military, which is obsessed with the concept of “fifth generation warfare” and believes every aspect of the narrative should be controlled through every means possible. (The PMRA) is happening, and the military will get it enforced come what may, as it needs a civilian façade for its martial law scheme. 

Additional reporting by Zofeen Ebrahim.

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