Pakistan ranks as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to media freedom. According to global media watchdog, RSF (Reporters without borders) Pakistan ranks at 145 in its 2020 global rankings, falling 3 spots from 2019.
In its 2020 report RSF notes “Pakistani media, which has a long tradition of being very lively, has become a priority target for the country’s “deep state,” a euphemism for the constant manoeuvring by the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main military intelligence agency, to subjugate the civilian executive. The influence of this military “establishment,” which cannot stand independent journalism, has increased dramatically since Imran Khan became prime minister in July 2018.”
Independent journalists and social media activists have become the new enemy of Pakistani state. Increasing number of journalists, bloggers and social media activists are being systematically targeted by the state to terrorise them into silence. Journalists are finding themselves to be the target of draconian laws, anonymous assailants and open threats.
The latest incident, involving two well-known journalists, Bilal Farooqui of Express Tribune and Absar Alam, are a grim reminder of the terrible times the media professionals in Pakistan are living in. Farooqui was picked up and arrested on a complaint by a factory worker that he had criticised the armed forces on social media while Alam was accused by a lawyer of passing derogatory remarks against the state. Obviously, both the complaints were filed at the instance of state agencies who wanted to teach journalists who dared to question the state.
The Pakistan army has been after the media houses and journalists for long, abducting many of them and subjecting them to all kinds of terror, punishing media houses with blockades and frivolous cases. Many journalists, even famous ones like Hamid Mir, have been shot at to silence them. Media houses owners have been charged with false cases and imprisoned and their businesses subject to sheer harassment.
The new weapon in the arsenal of the government against the media is prolonged pretrial detention as a form of punishment and intimidation. Mir Shakilur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media organisation in Pakistan. He has been in detention since March 12, 2020 for a trumped up case involving a 34-year-old property transaction. It is a classic case of Pakistani government’s brutal campaign against the media. The media group’s reporters, editors and producers have been targeted. Jang’s television channel, GEO TV, was forced off the air and audience access was restricted as punishment for editorials criticising the government.
Rarely had anyone imagined that the assault on the media would increase after Imran Khan took over as the Prime Minister. But it has. Khan has gone two steps ahead of the traditional enemy of free press–the army. The army has not changed its stripes, chasing, blackmailing, bribing, threatening and even killing journalists and bloggers for crossing the redline. Although earlier civilian governments have not covered themselves with any glory when it came to media freedom, journalists back then had a breathing space.
Imran Khan has proved to be worse than most military dictators. He has systematically, in collusion and on his own, seen to it that journalists who dared to question his actions and his government are dealt with severely. Many journalists have found themselves slapped with draconian charges on frivolous grounds. Those who have had the gumption to question the military were hunted down ruthlessly.
Even journalists working for international media houses are living under constant threat of intimidation and violence. They are constantly watched, followed and their phones tapped, and often intimidated by blank and anonymous calls. Many of them are threatened with deportation if their reports were found to be objectionable to the government and the military. No one in the media is safe today.
As an Editorial in the English daily, Dawn, which has had its share of disruptions, attacks and blackmail recently noted: “The climate of fear that journalists live in is suffocating. It is an indictment of democratic values that support the freedom of an individual to express opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal action. This environment has led to an unprecedented wave of censorship and self-censorship.
There is a devious motive behind Imran Khan’s suppression of free press–he, along with the army, wants to muzzle public opinion, create new but fake narratives to divert the attention of the people from the real problems facing the country. The prolonged subversion of the media, as we are witnessing during the Imran Khan regime, has already inflicted grave damage to institutions of governance and democratic values. Without a free media, Pakistan’s slide into anarchy is going to be even more rapid.