Imran Khan
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan | @ImranGhazaliPK/Twitter
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New Delhi: Three Pakistani news channels — AbbTakk, 24News and CapitalTV — were reportedly taken off air this month by the country’s electronic media watchdog which the country’s broadcasters said did not assign a reason or give them a hearing.

The watchdog, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), also issued notice to 21 TV broadcasters Sunday for airing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) vice-president Maryam Nawaz’s press conference over the weekend.

At the press meet, Maryam said the judge who sentenced her father, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to seven years in prison on corruption charges last December was blackmailed into giving the verdict, a claim the judge has denied.

In its notice, PEMRA said the press meet contained allegations against the judiciary and state institutions, and the broadcast thus violated its regulations. It is reportedly for the same reason that the three channels were taken off air.

Earlier this month, the telecast of an interview of opposition leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari, husband of former prime minister the late Benazir Bhutto, was reportedly cut off midway by Geo News. Journalist Hamid Mir, the host, subsequently wrote on Twitter that “we don’t live in a free country”.

Mir, a critic of the Pakistan military and its notorious intelligence wing ISI, survived an assassination attempt in 2014 when six bullets had been pumped into his body. He had blamed the assassination attempt on the then ISI chief.

The media in Pakistan has for years worked under the shadow of scare tactics such as harassment and abduction, reportedly expected to toe an undefined red line that precludes criticism of the country’s powerful military.

But the control seems to have deepened under the Imran Khan government, which came to office last year, allegedly with the support of the military. ThePrint takes a look at recent steps that appear to have curbed press freedom in Pakistan.


Also read: In order to survive, Pakistan’s media often plays dead in front of the military


Slashed funding

The government is the country’s largest media advertiser and its advertisements are the main source of revenue for news outlets in Pakistan.

In September 2018, PM Imran Khan created a ‘content committee’ that is mandated with approving all government advertisements before they are issued to print and electronic media.

Three months later, it was reported that Pakistan’s information ministry had heavily slashed ad prices for private news channels.

The 2018 State of Pakistani Media report by the Pakistan Press Foundation cited the same as one of the threats to local media.

This January, the federal cabinet approved the merger of PEMRA with the Press Council of Pakistan, a quasi-self-regulatory mechanism for print and digital media, to form a Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA).

Several media bodies, including the PCP, have opposed the plan because of fears that it is another bid to throttle media freedom.

Fear, hatred, intimidation

In addition to regulatory oversight and reduced funding, journalists in Pakistan allegedly face harassment on social media, besides that inflicted in the realm beyond.

According to Facebook data, Pakistan had the second highest number of content restrictions based on local laws for the July-December 2018, 4,165 (India was first with over 17,000).

Facebook’s Transparency Report for this period states that the social media giant removed items reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority for allegedly violating laws prohibiting “blasphemy, anti-judiciary content, defamation, and condemnation of the country’s independence”.

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, the founder of safenewsrooms.org, a digital media platform that documents press censorship in the media and press in South Asia, has been openly critical of the government and the army. He survived an alleged abduction attempt last year and has been living in exile in Paris since February 2018, where he now teaches journalism at SciencesPo.

Facebook “extensively collaborates with the Pakistani government in taking down pages which are progressive, independent, or run by ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities”, Siddiqui told ThePrint.

According to Siddiqui, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) social media cells that target journalists predate the 2018 election. He said the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of Pakistan’s military, trains university students in social media campaigning to label people with “progressive thoughts or independent ideas” as traitors or anti-Pakistan.


Also read: Imran Khan isn’t alone. There are 10 billionaires in Pakistan’s parliament


‘Whims of the ISI’

Officially, there are few limits on freedom of speech in Pakistan and many journalists get away with harsh criticism of the government, Lahore-based academic Dr Ammar Ali Jan wrote for Al Jazeera in 2018.

Jan said attacks on critical journalists appear to be determined by the whims of the ISI. Crossing this undefined red line has led to arbitrary arrests, abductions, murder and choked circulation or broadcasts.

In the lead-up to the 2018 election, Dawn‘s print circulation was restricted, while Geo TV was reportedly blacked out in cantonments and parts of Balochistan.

According to the State of Pakistani Media report 2018, vendors trying to sell copies of Dawn were harassed by members of the army. Both news outlets were accused by the army of sympathising with the PML-N, which was then in chaos following corruption allegations against Sharif.

Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida was summoned to a high court on treason charges for an interview where Sharif appeared to reinforce India’s assertion that Pakistan-based terrorists orchestrated 26/11.

Jan was arrested in February for leading a protest against the death of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader Arman Loni, who reportedly passed away in “controversial circumstances”. The PTM is a Pashtun vehicle for justice against alleged disappearances and extrajudicial killings of community members by the military. Reportage on PTM activities has seen websites being blocked and FIRs against journalists, the State of Pakistani Media report stated.

“There is no one standing up for journalists, and in that kind of an environment, self-censorship becomes a natural reaction to survive,” Siddiqui said.

He does not see Pakistan’s media climate improving in the near future.

“We’re basically moving towards the China model, where there cannot be independent voice or thought or opinion,” Siddiqui said. “Journalists are going to become stenographers, repeating what they government tells them… If democracies want to improve and correct themselves and become better, they need an independent and free media.”

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