While Pakistan media has been resisting military crackdown, news portals have begun succumbing to self censorship ahead of general election.
Pakistan’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, refused to publish political economist S. Akbar Zaidi’s articles over “censorship issues”. Zaidi, who is a frequent writer in the newspaper, was informed via email that the organisation was facing threats from Pakistan’s military and its agencies. An extract of the email available on social media cited the threats as “very serious”.
Military’s censorship on Dawn’s content is the latest challenge to the independence of Pakistani media at the moment, but it is also the biggest since Dawn is the most widely read English newspaper in Pakistan. This comes after Dawn published the controversial interview with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif criticizing the army and saying that it backed the militants who carried out the ‘26/11’ Mumbai attacks in 2008.
The threat for criticising the army isn’t just against the newspapers, but it has been increasing for journalists in the country as well. For example, eminent Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari, known to be a vocal critic of the army, was recently abducted for a few hours. Although the army spokesperson major general Asif Ghafoor denied the involvement of intelligence agencies in the incident, dismissing speculations emerging on social media, her assailants are still unknown.
In January this year, another Pakistan journalist, Taha Siddiqui, who has time and again called out military crackdown in Pakistan, had to flee the country after he was beaten, threatened and escaped abduction.
“The army and intelligence agencies were threatening me and I suspect the people who tried to kidnap me were from the army,” Siddiqui told Radio Free Europe/Radio Library in Paris, where he relocated himself.
In May 2011, journalist Saleem Shahzad was found dead in a canal in Islamabad with torture marks, after writing about links between the Pakistani military and al-Qaeda. Later, the Obama administration also claimed that the Pakistani spy agency had ordered Shahzad’s killing.
In the recent years, attacks on other journalists like Hamid Mir, Ahmed Noorani and Matiullah Jan by unknown assailants have lead to media being one of the most vulnerable institutions in Pakistan.
In February 2008, a Pakistani TV station was shut down after it allowed two broadcasters who had been banned by then president Pervez Musharraf. Although under the PML-N administration no TV channel was banned, Geo TV, Pakistan’s biggest news channel, was forced off air by unknown sources in various parts of the country in April this year. Fingers were pointed at the military for carrying out the move. The ban was reportedly lifted after a deal between the channel’s officials and the military to stop “negative portrayal of the media.”
Even the biggest political movement in Pakistan that emerged this year, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), was blacked out by the media. The army chief, general Qamar Javed Bajwa, had come forward and called the PTM as “engineered protests”.
However, even amid the media silence, the PTM gained momentum through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. These are being used widely by PTM leaders like Manzoor Pashteen to mobilise supporters for non-violent protests against human rights violation of the Pashtun community.
Not just activists but journalists and politicians have also become dependent on Twitter to carry uncensored discourse. But this platform hasn’t been spared by the army either. Several journalists as well as politicians took to Twitter to condemn the army after Ghafoor accused some senior journalists of peddling “anti-state” propaganda by retweeting “anti-Pakistan slogans” on Twitter. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists issued a statement on 6 June, condemning Ghafoor’s statement.
Pakistani military’s crackdown on all forms of media institute right before the general elections is a major concern for the country, amid the growing civil-military gap. Although the media is resisting this repression, many news channels and newspapers are giving into self-censorship to prevent the threat that is Pakistan military.