Pakistan’s media forced into self-censorship

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”108681″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]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. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Additional reporting by Zofeen Ebrahim.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1566474313248-04d0aaec-685c-8″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Project Exile: Pakistani reporter moves to France after kidnap attempt

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This article is part of Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist’s Project Exile series, which has published interviews with exiled journalists from around the world.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”101034″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]

Jumping out of a car to escape being abducted at gunpoint by the Pakistani military isn’t exactly how journalist Taha Siddiqui planned to start his trip to London.

Siddiqui, then a Pakistan correspondent for the network France 24 and the Indian news site WION, had angered the South Asian nation’s military with his reporting on national security issues and critical posts on social media.

On 10 January the problems caught up with him as he rode to the airport in a Careem, a popular ride-hailing service in the capital Islamabad. A car with armed men in it forced Siddiqui’s driver to stop. He was beaten by the side of the highway and the men forced him into the back of a vehicle and started to drive off with him.

Pakistani media is noted for its lively and diverse news coverage. Yet reporters in the country face threats not just from extremist groups like the Taliban but from the military and intelligence agencies.

The country ranks 139th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and in recent months independent media like Geo TV and Dawn newspaper have been blocked from distribution. Earlier this month two reporters were attacked in Lahore shortly after a military spokesman condemned “anti-state” remarks made by journalists on social media.

As Siddiqui told Global Journalist, he was able to escape from his captors and report the attack to the police. The kidnapping attempt wasn’t the first time Siddiqui had problems with Pakistan’s military. In 2015, he was threatened after he co-wrote a lengthy New York Times article detailing how the military had disappeared dozens of suspected Pakistani Taliban members. The article included allegations that some of those disappeared were starved, tortured and killed.

He was also threatened after helping produce a France 24 report critical of the Pakistani army’s handling of a 2014 school massacre in Peshawar that left over 150 dead. Siddiqui had also faced pressure last year after posting tweets critical of the military’s “glorifying” of past dictators and its whitewashing of its role in fomenting a 1965 war with India.


In May 2017 he was summoned for questioning by the federal police’s counter-terrorism department despite a court order banning them from harassing him. In September, Siddiqui was called to meet with the military’s spokesman, Gen. Asif Ghafoor. In an interview, Siddiqui says Ghafoor told him that if he didn’t stop his criticism, “I would get myself into trouble.”

Ghafoor did not respond to messages seeking comment from Global Journalist. Yet trouble didn’t come until the January attack, and Siddiqui can’t point to one specific incident as a cause.

“I don’t know what specific story, article or video triggered it,” he says in an interview with Global Journalist. “Or was it just my social media activity?”

Weeks after the attack, Siddiqui, decided to leave Pakistan for France for security reasons. Before he left, he says he met with Pakistan’s then interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal. Iqbal, Siddiqui says, told the journalist he should write a letter to Gen. Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, and beg for forgiveness. Neither Iqbal nor Bajwa responded to requests for comment.

Now 34, Siddiqui lives with his wife and 4-year-old son in Paris, where he is working part-time with the media company Babel Press and looking for a full-time job. He spoke with Global Journalist’s Rosemary Belson about his attack and flight from his homeland.

Global Journalist: Can you tell us about the reporting that landed you in hot water?

Siddiqui: The military is politically-involved in Pakistan. They have businesses, they are involved in human rights abuses, education.

When reporting in Pakistan about any particular issue, usually you end up tracking it back to the military in some way or another. It’s impossible to report without talking about the military and its involvement in a wide range of issues in Pakistan.

I refer to a story that I did for the New York Times. It came out on the front page of the International New York Times in 2015. It was a story about military secret prisons where they were killing suspected militants. They were extrajudicially killing them inside the jails. I uncovered about 100 to 250 cases across Pakistan, especially in the Tribal Belt [in northwest Pakistan].

Even at that time, the New York Times thought it was quite risky for my name to go on it. But I wanted my byline on it and that was the first time I started receiving direct threats.

There were always indirect messages coming in through friends in the journalism business or friends in the government saying that I should be careful… Constantly on and off these threats would come. Even to the extent where my friends and people I socialized with were told to stay away from me.

GJ: Walk us through the attempted abduction.

Siddiqui: On 10 January I was headed to the airport to catch a flight to London for work. The week before that I was working on a story about missing persons. I was supposed to file the story from the airport because I didn’t have [time] to file it before, so I took [my] hard drive and laptop.

My Careem came around 8 a.m. for my flight at noon. Halfway to the airport on the main Islamabad highway, a car swerved in front of me and stopped. Armed men got out of the vehicle with pistols and AK-47s.

At first, I thought it was a case of road rage or robbery, but one of them approached from my side and pointed his gun towards me and said something along the lines of: “Who do you think you are?”

I got out and assumed that this had something to do with the threats I had been receiving. I tried to run away but they pinned me down on the road. That’s when I noticed there was another car behind me with people coming out of it as well. They made a barricade around me, and this was [on] the main highway at 8:30 in the morning, with traffic…they started beating me and wanted to take me away.

I was resisting and they kept hitting me with the butts of their guns…and kicking me. Finally, one of them said, “Shoot him in the leg if he doesn’t stop resisting because we have to take him.”

That’s when I realized they were serious about shooting me. Earlier, [when] they didn’t shoot me right away, I thought perhaps it means they want to take me alive. In my mind I was thinking that resistance would give me some lifeline. I saw a military vehicle passing by. I called out for help but it didn’t stop.

After being threatened by being shot in the leg, they put me in the taxi, and took out the driver. One person drove while two people sat with me in the back and one in the front. They were holding me in a headlock with a gun pointing to the left side of my body on my stomach.

I told him, “I’m going with you. Can you relax for a little bit and let me relax also, [and] sit up straight?”

The guy relaxed his arm and gun. That’s when I realized the right back door of the car was unlocked. I went for it, opened it. I jumped out, ran to the other side of the road with oncoming traffic. I tried to look for a taxi. I could hear behind me they were shouting and saying, “Shoot him!”

But I just ran and finally I found a taxi. I got into it while it was moving. I opened the door, jumped into it. The taxi took me 700 or 800 meters before realizing there was something wrong and [the driver] didn’t want to help me anymore. So they asked me to get out because it was already occupied by some women.

I got out of the taxi. On the side of the road, there were some ditches and a marsh area, so I jumped into that and hid there for a bit. I took off my red sweater because I was worried they’d see me…we later recovered the sweater with the police.

I found another taxi. I asked to use [the driver’s] phone. I called a journalist friend and asked him what to do. He suggested I go to the nearest police station and the taxi driver took me. I filed a report where I named the Pakistan military as a suspect. I also tweeted about it from a friend’s account because they had taken my phone, passport, suitcase, laptop, bag. I only had my wallet left on me.

GJ: How did you make the decision to leave Pakistan?

Siddiqui: The police investigation found that the [surveillance] cameras in the area weren’t working. They found one of the cars that stopped me was following me from my house but they couldn’t identify any of the faces inside the car because [the windows] were tinted and the license plate was fake.

I was invited [to a meeting] by the Interior Minister of Pakistan [Ahsan Iqbal]. He suggested that I should write a letter to the Pakistan Army Chief [Gen. Qamar Bajwa]. That’s when I realized the government was totally helpless.

People suggested that I go away for awhile because they didn’t finish the job and they might come again. Especially since I wasn’t going silent, as was suggested by some senior journalist friends who later turned their back to me during this ordeal.

It was really disappointing and depressing seeing my own journalist community not supporting me. The international media supported me, some local journalists supported me, but some people that I knew personally thought I was going the wrong way by being vocal about the attack.

Me, my wife…we sat down together and discussed. We didn’t tell my kid at the time but now I’ve gently told him how there’s a safety issue for me and we had to move.

We decided that we should get out. If we are getting out, it wasn’t going to be a three or six-month thing, because I’m fighting invisible forces in my country. I will not know if I’ve won or lost or whether they’re still after me or not.

We decided on Paris because I had been working with the French media for the last seven or eight years as a journalist for France 24. I also received the French equivalent of the Pulitzer prize [the Albert Londres prize] in 2014, so I have strong journalistic support and community here.

GJ: How has media freedom changed over time in Pakistan?

Siddiqui: Press freedom has always been under attack. We’ve gone through military dictatorships in Pakistan…through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Two things have changed in recent years. One, we as journalists don’t know what the red lines are. In my case, I don’t know what specific story, article or video triggered it. Or was it just my social media activity?

Secondly, non-state actors are now being activated against journalists so [the military] can hide behind those non-state actors and get the job done.

The military has ensured that unity among journalists is not as it used to be. They have done that through financial coercion or financial rewards…it’s further shrunk the space for journalists. The military is becoming more intolerant and its tactics to control the media are becoming more violent. I see the situation becoming worse in the coming days.

This all needs to be put in context. It’s an election year in Pakistan. The Pakistani military wants all of this room to manipulate elections for strategic gains. They don’t want the ruling party [Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz] to come into power again with a similar majority to what they enjoy right now. So to make sure they can easily manipulate the elections, they are trying to develop an environment of fear where independent reporting can’t happen.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_video link=”″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook). We’ll send you our weekly newsletter, our monthly events update and periodic updates about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share, sell or transfer your personal information to anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″]

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Petition challenges Pakistan’s censorship in court


Journalist Azaz Syed said that reporters are being told to self-censor.

Journalist Azaz Syed said that reporters are being told to self-censor. (Photo: YouTube)

Nine Pakistani citizens have filed a constitutional petition in Pakistan’s Sindh High Court in response to recent harassment and arrests of journalists and activists. The petition was filed Monday 5 June, naming the Federation of Pakistan and Federal Investigation Agency as respondents.

The petitioners, who are journalists and activists, include Farieha Aziz. Aziz is the director of Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani nonprofit that promotes digital freedom and gender rights through advocacy and research, though the group was not part of the petition. Bolo Bhi won Index on Censorship’s 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award.

“We’ve approached court because as citizens we believe the government has acted unlawfully and its actions are creating an environment of fear, in turn causing a chilling effect on speech,” Aziz told Index. “As citizens and professionals we believe we must collect to take such initiatives in the interest of democracy and to ensure that rule of law is upheld.”

The petitioners are responding to government actions that they claim have a “chilling effect on freedom of speech”. Pakistan’s government has been using cyber crime laws to crackdown on activists who criticise the military. On 10 May, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority texted citizens a message cautioning against blasphemous online content and suggesting that they report any such content. Pakistan’s cyber crime laws allow the government to censor material online. This followed an order in March from the Islamabad High Court to remove blasphemous material from all websites, even if that meant blocking those websites.

Pakistan has become an increasingly hostile environment for journalists and critics of government actions. In January, five prominent online critics of Pakistan’s military went missing within a few days of each other, and their websites were immediately blocked. Last week, Geo news journalist Azaz Syed escaped an attempted kidnapping in Islamabad, and the perpetrators have not yet been identified. Another journalist from Geo TV, Hamid Mir, was seriously wounded in a gun attack last year.

This is not the first time Syed has been confronted with threats and attacks because of his work. In 2010 he received threatening phone calls and his home was attacked, and although he was able to name his assailants the police have yet to lodge an official complaint. This time, Syed has avoided naming his attackers as he fears for the security of his family.

Syed describes the changing environment for journalists as moving away from physical attacks. News organisations are encouraging journalists not to anger those in power, even pushing them to avoid posting on social media. According to Syed, only those who do not listen and continue to post are at risk of physical attack. “This is happening because the culprits involved in attacking the journalists never face the long arm of law,” Syed told Index. “Everything ultimately goes to the imbalance of civil-military relations in the country.”

On 14 May, the minister of the interior ordered the FIA to take action against individuals suspected of carrying out anti-military campaigns online. The FIA has continued to detain people suspected of participating in this type of campaign.

Activist Adnan Afzal Qureshi was arrested by FIA on 31 May for “anti-military tweets” and “abusive language against military personnel and political leaders,” according to the FIA. He was charged under sections of the law relating to “offence against the dignity of a natural person” and “cyberstalking”.

The FIA has sent notices to other activists instructing them to report to the counter-terrorism wing of the police station. The notices do not include any suspected offences, or the type of information FIA is seeking.

The petitioners called the government and the FIA’s actions violations of due process. In their statement, they condemn the government’s actions as “coercive acts to intimidate, harass and threaten not just targeted individuals but citizens at large,” which they accuse of attempting to inhibit the public’s exercise of rights.

The respondents were instructed to file a response by 15 June, which was later adjourned to 25 June.

In another development, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan sentenced Taimoor Raza to death on 11 June for committing blasphemy in a Facebook post. His offence consisted of disparaging the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures.The exact contents of the post have not been released, but Raza was arrested following a debate about Islam on Facebook with a counter-terrorism agent last year. He was charged with the maximum sentence under laws punishing derogatory remarks about religious figures, and a law concerning derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. This is the first death sentence for a social media post in Pakistan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1497944568388-6fea101c-dfb2-3″ taxonomies=”23″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content_no_spaces” content_placement=”middle”][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”91122″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][/vc_column][/vc_row]