Even as they have practiced unprecedented levels of self-censorship, channels have been taken off air and newspaper distribution disrupted.
Barely three weeks after Pakistan went to the polls, and supposedly ushered in a third successive elected government, censorship has peaked to levels previously unheard of. No-go areas have extended into the realm of the ludicrous at a hurtling speed, and freedom of speech looks like a very sorry train wreck.
Blame it all on the mysterious ‘agriculture department’.
One of the largest media houses in Pakistan contacted me to participate in a recorded show to be aired on the day of Eid. These shows range from the frivolous to mildly entertaining for some. I agreed, reluctantly, because I felt I was not qualified to speak either about the latest fashion in clothes, music, celebrities, or the merits of animal sacrifice. But the next day, the producer of the show apologised profusely for “an apparent mis-commitment”, saying the “agriculture department, which oversees all our official matters now” had refused to give me permission to be on screen.
‘Agriculture department’ is now one of several code words that have become part of the Pakistani political lexicon used for the military.
Incidentally, the phrase was introduced and became a meme after an election candidate of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PML(N), released a video last month, in which he broke down and alleged persons from an intelligence agency had beaten him up and threatened to ruin his business if he didn’t change his political affiliation. The next morning, Sharif condemned the incident in no uncertain terms. In a tragi-comic turn of events the same evening, the wretched candidate recanted his allegation on television, saying it was the ‘agriculture department’ that had roughed him up and threatened him.
The turbo-charged journey of censorship in Pakistan to this irrational point has been confounding, not just in terms of its speed over the last one year, but also in the way it has morphed into an all-enveloping pall.
Till mid-2017, the red lines seemed fairly old and standard: Criticism of the military and the issue of forced disappearances in the insurgency-hit Balochistan could not be discussed. But sometime around autumn last year, the ban was extended to criticism of the superior judiciary — on the back of the bizarre and lop-sided legal proceedings taking place against the Sharif family and party members and their political opponents, mainly the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Within months, the ban was expanded to reporting of court proceedings because of the scornful and contemptuous reaction the case proceedings were drawing.
Media houses surrendered to the financial choke applied to them, and journalists turned to creative ways to get the news out, using their op-eds and personal accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Periscope etc.
Pressure was then applied on media houses to force journalists to delete their accounts and tweets or face consequences, and the era of deleted tweets and columns commenced around April this year. Agreements were drawn up between media houses and the security establishment featuring the promotion of negative stories on the Sharifs and favourable content on arch-rival Imran Khan.
Early this year, there was a complete electronic media blackout on Sharif’s rallies and his daughter Maryam’s fiery speeches flaying the ongoing political engineering, the controversial disqualification of Sharif, and a simultaneous blasphemy campaign against party leaders. Around the same time, the incredible Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) surfaced, calling attention to human rights abuses in the formerly named Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan’s almost two-decade long war on terror.
The PTM was drawing crowds of tens of thousands to its protests across Pakistani cities, but the media abided by the newest blackout and did not show them on television — notwithstanding constitutional demands. The military has attempted to negotiate with the PTM close to a dozen times behind the scenes, but never allowed its crowd-pulling strength to be beamed across the country.
During the last six months in Pakistan, channels have been taken off air because of perceived transgressions, or newspaper distribution disrupted, even as they practiced unprecedented levels of self-censorship. Three journalists spoke to me about being forced to delete their tweets by their own media houses.
In an astonishing public revelation just a couple of weeks ago, popular television anchor Muneeb Farooq said he was not allowed to use the term ‘political engineering’ during his live talk shows, even though it had been the hot topic in the lead up to the general elections last month. More revealing however, were off-the-record disclosures of several journalists familiar with negotiations with the military, several months ago: ‘Political engineering’ was not to be mentioned as it was being done to rid the country of corrupt politicians in the larger interests of the nation.
Shortly after the close of polling on 25 July, reporters participating in election transmissions started to receive reports from across the country of party monitors (known as polling agents) being thrown out at the time of vote counting and of rigging practices, but they were disallowed from broadcasting these facts. Veteran journalist and anchor Saleem Safi wrote a column last week revealing he was thrown off the set after he read out some of the reports of rigging. His interviews with two leading politicians were subsequently not aired. He is now missing from the screen, from print and social media.
Similar is the story of popular host Talat Husain’s interview with another opposition politician. These interview blackouts fell into a new category: Muzzling the right of political opponents of prime minister-select Imran Khan to allege charges, and provide details, of rigging in various constituencies. A television producer told me her channel said it would not air any reports on allegations of rigging.
Over the last week, whatever has been written about censorship, even in very general terms, has been censored. Novelist and analyst Ammar Masood’s weekly column that talked in non-specific terms of being in chains was not published. Similarly, Senator Afrasiab Khattak’s regular column was dropped because its topic was censorship. Talat Husain’s seven-tweet thread Friday night, criticising his own organisation on censorship of his interviews and talk shows on rigging allegations, stood deleted and censored by Saturday.
None of this has drawn a squeak, from either the caretaker government, or from the prime minister-in-waiting, who has asked the nation to celebrate Pakistan’s freedom on 14 August in a tweet: “I want all Pakistanis to celebrate 14th August, our Independence Day, with full fervor – especially as we are now moving towards Naya Pakistan & reclaiming Jinnah’s vision Inshallah.”
Some vision. Some freedom. Some celebration.
The author is columnist and human rights defender based in Lahore.