In old Pakistan, only people would go missing. In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, even interviews go missing.
On Monday, the interview of former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari abruptly went off air from Geo News within minutes of the broadcast.
Journalist Hamid Mir, host of the very show Capital Talk, took to Twitter saying, “It’s easy to understand who stopped [the interview]”, and that “those who stopped it have no courage to accept publicly that they stopped it.”
‘Who’ being the operative word here.
What is it that Zardari was to say that would have hurt the Pakistan government or the person of Prime Minister Imran Khan? The promos of the interview that ran for two days prior saw Zardari talking about a financial scandal that could hurt Imran Khan and also that he doesn’t see Imran Khan being PM in the near future.
Nothing new here. Politicians talk for a living.
Why would the Pakistan government take offence to Zardari’s views and take it off air, only to make it a bigger issue and help it reach a bigger audience?
Only a few days ago, Imran Khan had shown disdain to the speaker in the national assembly for allowing opposition leaders with corruption charges to make speeches. Citing the example of the British parliament, he said, “If a politician is even stigmatised of stealing from the people there, neither is he entertained on the TV channels nor the parliament.”
Ironically, the same Imran Khan, when in opposition, made hay on mainstream TV channels without any censorship.
This not a debate about ‘corrupt’ politicians being given airtime or the morality of who can be interviewed. After all, Pakistani media houses have given air space to the likes of Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s Ehsanullah Ehsan, Islamic State-recruit Naureen Laghari, Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat’s Ahmed Ludhianvi, Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s Khadim Hussain Rizvi or Kashmiri militant Syed Salahuddin. Not once did the regulatory authority oppose or censor these interviews.
Creeping fascism is what defines Naya Pakistan. What doesn’t please the ear, won’t be heard.
There are several instances of such censorship from the Khan government. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued orders to Channel-24 to air an apology for what it described as “propagation of false news about the prime minister.” The false news being that journalist Najam Sethi said, “Phadda parh gaya hai”. A “little bird” told him that Imran Khan had “developed differences” with the first lady.
Masroor Ali Siyal, a politician from the ruling PTI, assaulted Karachi Press Club president Imtiaz Khan during a heated argument on a news show. Federal minister Fawad Chaudhry slapped journalist Sami Ibrahim because he had accused Chaudhury of hatching a conspiracy against the prime minister.
Pakistan’s regulatory authority also told TV channels to not “demean individuals representing various political parties and law enforcement agencies through caricatures, animated characters, photo-shopped images and funny memes.” They thought satire would tarnish the image of the leaders.
From Zia to Khan, Pakistan has had a long history of curbing press freedom in the name of national interest. The current suppression of the media is not new, it has been managed over the past two years especially in the run-up to the 2018 general elections, when Imran Khan came to power.
The biggest rights movement in the country, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, sees a complete blackout on mainstream television channels. Their leaders are not invited on talk shows, their protests are never worthy of coverage. They are accused of all wrongdoings, but are never given airspace to defend themselves.
When journalist Gohar Wazir from Khyber News interviewed PTM leader and member of national assembly Moshin Dawar, he was arrested.
During the 2018 elections, Lahore High Court ordered the PEMRA to ban “anti-judiciary” speeches of former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz on television. Rallies of PML-N were taken off-air, particularly of the one when Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan from London. Journalist Talat Hussain’s show on Geo News wasn’t allowed to air any footage from the ground on that day.
In May 2018, government-run Pakistan Television Network decided not to telecast a press conference of then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Even the prime minister himself wasn’t above censorship. Unprecedented indeed.
Space for diverse opinion has not only shrunk in Pakistani media, but also in public spaces. Last November, PTM leader and member of national assembly Ali Wazir, senior journalist Rashid Rehman, academics Dr Ammar Ali Jaan and Dr Taimur Rahman were barred from speaking at the Faiz International Festival. Again by ‘who’, no one knows.
Often news channels go off air across the country and no one knows why. The government and the PEMRA deny it, and the cable operators are clueless. And the Pakistanis?
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.