Harsh Facts about Curbs on Freedom of Expression in Pakistan

Pakistan ranks high on the list of countries where journalists are killed, activists kidnapped and tortured and freedom of speech censored. Pakistan’s leading human rights organization, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) just released its fact-finding report on the curbs on freedom of expression inside Pakistan.
 
The report looked at the following issues:
 
“Interviews carried out independently by HRCP with distributors in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh corroborate allegations by Dawn that disruptions and intermittent closures in commercial establishments and residential areas associated with the military have had a serious impact on business. Following the publication of an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on 12 May 2018, sales agents allege that the distribution of Dawn has been disrupted daily in at least 20 targeted cities and towns – specifically in cantonment areas and army offices and schools. Hawkers report being subjected to continual harassment, threats and physical coercion by military personnel while attempting to deliver copies of Dawn to regular subscribers. At least two distributors confirm that they were asked to provide information on their subscribers.
This has been accompanied by the withdrawal or suspension of advertisements: Dawn reports that, since October 2016, it has suffered a complete ban on advertising from organizations falling under the domain of the ISPR, including DHA and other commercial establishments.”
 
“HRCP has documented at least three instances in which cable operators in Punjab and GB say they were compelled to take certain channels off air. In each case, they received a telephone call from persons identifying themselves as state or intelligence agency officials, warning them to ‘remove’ Geo TV from the list of channels being transmitted or to move it to the very end, thereby making it less accessible. All respondents say they had no choice but to comply for fear their business would be closed down or attacked. As far as the television channel management is concerned, the prevailing uncertainty surrounding their ability to broadcast means they stand to lose long-term advertising contracts. At least two respondents confirmed that this has affected their financial stability and ability to pay salaries on time. The general perception among smaller TV channels is that, if a media house as prominent as Geo TV can be targeted in the form of disruptions to transmission – with obvious implications for how this affects their business and compels them to engage in what one respondent termed ‘cost reduction exercises’ – then they, too, have little choice but to fall in line.”
 
“The systematic curtailment of freedom of expression in the form of press advice, intimidation and harassment, reportedly by state or intelligence agencies, has left many journalists and their management too vulnerable to resist. Reprisals have taken ominous forms, including abduction and assault in several instances.”
 
“Verbal press advice, received either on the telephone or during a visit, usually pertains to what should not be published or broadcast. HRCP’s interviews reveal that the most commonly tabooed subjects are: missing persons, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Baloch separatists and rights activists such as Mama Qadeer, the Panama trial and NAB references, the disqualification and arrest of Nawaz Sharif, references to any questionable decisions by the judiciary, allegations of judicial overreach and questions about the armed forces. At least two respondents report having been warned that news transmissions must use the words ‘criminal’ or ‘convicted’ – rather than ‘former Prime Minister’ – to identify Nawaz Sharif. Other topics unpopular with the establishment, at least three respondents have claimed, include criticism of the PTI. Another reportedly common piece of press advice to the broadcast media is that the channel should give greater coverage to PTI rallies and only minimal coverage to other parties’ events. Other issues raised over what one respondent termed ‘a friendly cup of tea’ – the standard euphemism applied to summons from state agencies – include questions pertaining to coverage of national security issues, editorial policies and even reporters’ sources.
Respondents in both the print and broadcast media say that the advice may be issued by civil bureaucrats, the office of the DG Press and Information or directly by the ISPR, often relayed through the management. At least four television or radio journalists report that, in addition to communicating directly with ‘errant’ journalists, state or intelligence agencies tend to approach channel or newspaper owners directly, threatening their channel/publication or parent business with NAB or FIA cases or suspension of advertisements unless they agree to abide by certain conditions. Many print and broadcast journalists say that a common consequence of ‘disobeying’ instructions is vicious character assassinations through anonymous social media accounts and social networking platforms that go so far as to incite violence against mediapersons – and in the case of women, rape threats. In at least two cases, respondents in the print media say they were called in for questioning by state or intelligence agencies and interrogated about international funding and contact with separatists. One senior anchorperson claims that ‘technical faults’ are often cited by the management as a reason for not broadcasting a program on ‘sensitive’ subjects. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that anchors are not taken into confidence by the management as to what they can or cannot say on air. He also alleges that the management sends the material they have edited out of his programs to the military establishment to remain in the latter’s ‘good books’. This, he says, simply makes him more vulnerable. He sees this as a double game: the establishment, too, might show an anchor a recording of material the management has edited out as ‘evidence’ of the latter’s ‘insincerity’, creating divisions between employees and management. At least seven editors and reporters in GB have testified to receiving press advice and being threatened with dire consequences – including threats of arrest, violence or death – if they do not comply. Most say they are warned against giving coverage to nationalists and reporting negatively about state institutions and government departments. In one extreme case, an editor and publisher who did not comply, despite being offered bribes and his life threatened five times, was accused of being on the payroll of foreign spy agencies. A case was registered against him under the Terrorism Act and he was arrested. He remains in prison. Overall, continuing intimidation and the perceived need to self-censor has severely hampered objective journalism. It has also taken a toll on members of staff, some of whom have refused to work or left. This has left particularly the newspapers beleaguered, with threats also emanating from religious radicals, separatists and officials of nationalist or political parties if news on their activities is not published.”
 
“Several respondents specified that the quid pro quo for strictly following directions is the promise of access to events and personalities. However, senior representatives of the establishment, they claim, often offer bribes of foreign travel, allotment of plots and other privileges, professional advancement, cash bribes, promises of advertisement revenue and government jobs.”
 
“At least five respondents in Lahore and one in Islamabad felt that journalists’ trade unions were too splintered to speak with one voice against such instances of intimidation and harassment. Many had been either compromised or were too afraid to take a strong stand, even going so far, said one respondent, as to ‘blame the victim’.”
“Press advice to social media users, especially those critical of state policies, has also increased. Any criticism of the policies of the military or discussions of extremist violence attracts the most press advice. Respondents testified to receiving advice from the ISPR and from civil agencies such as the FIA, which, they allege, has begun to call social media users for ‘hearings’ relating to their online activity, albeit with no supporting official orders. It is not uncommon to receive direct requests to delete specific tweets and, in one respondent’s case, to be asked to report ‘objectionable’ tweets. In January 2018, one respondent escaped an abduction attempt during which his travel documents, laptop and phone were taken. He went into exile soon after. Subsequently, he set up a website ‘Safe Newsrooms’ to enable whistle-blowers to unmask censorship, but the website was blocked soon after. Another respondent says she was detained for one night in Lahore a day before the PTM rally in April 2018. She alleges that she was hit with the butt of a gun and pushed so that her head hit the wall. She was called a traitor and then put in solitary confinement overnight at the Counter Terrorism Department headquarters in Lahore. Subsequently, her computer was attacked with malware through a video link sent to her three days before the PTM rally in Karachi in May 2018 and her internet data blocked for a month during the same period.”
 
The HRCP issued a list of recommendations addressed to the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan and all state institutions to:
“- Take due notice of the complaints it has presented
– Take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorized, illegal and unlawful interference with freedom of expression in the country
– Protect the right of television channel and news publication owners to function with dignity and in peace.
– There should be no interference in the sale and distribution of any newspaper, nor should any TV channels be deliberately displaced.
– The system of issuing ‘press advice’ or press-advice-like ‘instructions’ on the part of state agencies must cease immediately.
– All complaints of this nature should be redressed promptly.
– Complete and effective information commissions are set up in each province to implement the state’s obligations under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.”

Pakistan remains on FATF ‘Grey list’

For some years now Pakistan’s friends in Washington, London and even Beijing have been asking the powers that be to take action terrorist groups and terror financing. Islamabad- Rawalpindi, however, believed that Pakistan is so important to the global community that nothing will ever happen to this country.

 

We received a wakeup call this February when Pakistan was placed on the grey list of FATF but nothing was done and so four months later the FATF has decided to keep Pakistan on the grey list. This is not the first time this has happened. Pakistan was on the FATF list from 2012 to 2015 as well.

 

In February 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — an inter-governmental body established in 1989 that “sets standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system,” placed Pakistan on its ‘grey list’ —- meaning a country that does not do enough “to counter and combat money laundering and terror financing.” While FAFT does not have the authority or power to impose sanctions on a country found non-compliant with the required standards yet being placed on an FATF list means a country will find it difficult to access funds from the international market.

 

According to a news story: “Presenting Pakistan’s case at the FATF talks in Paris, Dr Shamshad Akhtar, the interim minister for finance and planning, apprised the watchdog of the steps the country has taken to stem money laundering and terror financing, and put up a robust case for not placing its name on the greylist. During the crucial meeting, the Akhtar-led Pakistani delegation also talked about Islamabad’s efforts against the banned outfits and various terrorist groups. The Pakistani delegation’s case indicated that the nation has been working to curb financial assistance for terrorists, made existing laws better, and ensured improved implementation of the current regulations.”

 

However, instead of undertaking actual actions the government preferred to argue that the reason why Pakistan was still on the grey list was solely because of the actions of the United States and India. “Speaking in light of the latest development, Azam Khan, the caretaker minister of interior affairs, said the watchdog was under pressure from the United States and India, both of which together also compelled Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and China.”

 

Further, akin to February, till the last-minute government sources kept arguing “that Pakistan was likely to be granted more time to implement necessary measures to be compliant with the FATF’s anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regulations, that did not turn out to be the case in the six-day meeting in the French capital that runs from June 24 through 29.”

 

If Pakistan’s caretaker government really wants to improve the economic situation they need to take real action that is verifiable and evident to the global community, otherwise Pakistan’s economy will go from bad to worse.

Pakistan Army Declares War on Dissent

Every Pakistani reporter, blogger and columnist knows that Big brother is watching them. Amnesty international’s recent report of May 2018 “Pakistan: Human rights under surveillance,” shows how human rights activists in Pakistan have been targeted and their computers and accounts hacked. Global media watchdogs like Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders have consistently spoken about “overt press censorship” in Pakistan. Pakistan’s human rights watchdog HRCP also issued a recent statement titled “No room for dissenters” in which it expressed “grave concern over the increasing frequency and ‘sheer impunity’ with which anyone critical of the state is being targeted.”

On June 4 at a press conference on Monday June 4, DG ISPR spoke about “censorship on media reportedly at the behest of security establishment. He said he maintained contacts with media owners and all the journalists.” According to media reports: DG ISPR “said the army had never tried to dictate any media group or journalist to report according to their wishes. He expressed his gratitude to the local media, which, he said, often reports keeping in mind the country’s larger interest. Maj Gen Ghafoor raised serious questions over the use of social media to propagate certain message against Pakistan and its institutions.”

What was worrying was that the DG also “showed a chart featuring how certain individuals re-tweet anti-Pakistan content. Interestingly, the list includes certain political figures, whose identities were not shared, and some media personalities. Names of some journalists on the chart drew strong reaction on social media with some calling it an open threat to those who do not subscribe to the views of security establishment.”

The chart is reproduced below from social media:

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed “strong disapproval’ of the slide display of images and names of social media users and of branding them ‘anti-state’. ‘With less than two months to the elections,’ added the Commission, ‘an ominous pattern seems to be emerging: even the slightest expression of political dissent, especially by journalists and social media activists, can be labelled “anti-state”, often with worrying implications for their physical safety.”

One day before the press conference, several Pashtun ethnic rights activists were killed and at least 25 were wounded when their gathering in Wana was attacked by Taliban militants and security forces opened fire on protesters soon after. In a twitter post, Manzoor Pashteen, the head of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), said “that at least 10 people died and 30 were wounded during Sunday’s violence. In his Twitter post, Pashteen described how Taliban fighters had first attacked the PTM gathering. Later angry protesters threw stones, prompting “indiscriminate” firing by security forces, he said.” According to Reuters story: “Some PTM members said they suspected the gunmen who attacked them belonged to a Taliban faction that has covert support from Pakistan’s powerful military.”

Just one day after this press conference well-known journalist and activist and vocal critic of the military establishment Gul Bukhari was abducted by unknown persons in Lahore while on her way to the studios of Waqt TV. According to a report in Dawn: Bukhari “was abducted on Sherpao Bridge in Lahore’s Cantonment area. Her family had reported her missing to the police. Punjab Police said Bukhari had not been detained by its personnel.”

Bukhari was freed in the wee hours of the following morning after outrage and concern expressed on social media by media watchdogs as well as the British High Commission in Pakistan.

According to a report in BBC: “Gul Bukhari was freed several hours after being abducted, her family said. There had been outrage from colleagues. She had been on her way to work when she was stopped late at night in the city’s army-controlled cantonment area. A colleague said men in “army uniforms” were present at the abduction, along with others in plainclothes. It comes after a spate of similar kidnappings. Ms Bukhari, who has dual Pakistani-British nationality, had been on her way to television studios to record a show on which she appears, when she was seized. “They put a black mask on her face and took her,” Muhammad Gulsher, a producer on the Waqt show, told Reuters news agency. A number of pick-up trucks had stopped her car, he also quoted her driver as saying. Where she was taken remains unclear.”

In its statement HRCP was “appalled at the recent abduction of Gul Bukhari, a journalist known for her views on law enforcement organizations. While Ms Bukhari was returned safely home within a few hours, the fact that she was summarily “picked up” from the Lahore Cantonment should make it clear that enforced disappearances are rapidly becoming the norm—an easy and arbitrary means of intimidating those who do not toe the line.’”

According to the human rights watchdog: “HRCP feels acutely that this election is critical—more so than before—to preserving the country’s fragile democratic order. The right to non-violent dissent is part of this democratic order. We strongly condemn any use of extra constitutional means to intimidate and harass citizens, or to put them in a position that might compromise their safety.”

Bugti’s Support for Pakistan Democracy Opens Doors for Balochistan

The chief of Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), Brahumdagh Bugti, represents a voice of reason among Baloch nationalists who have borne the brunt of the worst atrocities by Pakistani authorities. But unlike some of them, he seems unwilling to close all doors for politics and a political settlement. After all, the Baloch are relatively in few numbers and have waged a struggle for their human rights and right of self-determination for several decades. But their courage notwithstanding, the Baloch cannot succeed by armed struggle. They will eventually need a political settlement that recognizes their national rights.

Recently, Bugti tweeted:

Some Baloch nationalists misread that tweet as support for one of the many Punjabi political actors that have condoned or ignored the injustices against the people of Balochistan. In fact, it should be seen as a sensible political move to expand the circle of friends within Pakistan for the Baloch people.

The most unreasonable stance against the Baloch has been adopted by Pakistan’s establishment, which has periodically waged war against the Baloch. General Pervez Musharraf killed Nawab Akbar Bugti and proudly proclaimed the end of Baloch resistance and Baloch nationalism. Since then, the Baloch have proved him wrong by resisting centralized control over their historic homeland.

The establishment has retaliated by completely taking over Balochistan’s political process, installing puppets in the provincial government and taking away any semblance of real Baloch representation in the government. Human Rights violation in Balochistan are rampant, forcing many Baloch leaders into exile or driving them underground. Those supporting the Baloch are dismissed as foreign agents.

Still, there are many Pakistanis committed to democracy and human rights who speak out boldly for the Baloch. Although those Pakistani politicians who have wielded power in recent years have done little to stand by the Baloch people, it is in the interest of the Baloch struggle that the Baloch seek support from any politician who confronts the Pakistani establishment. It is in this context that Brahumdagh Bugti’s acknowledgement of Nawaz Sharif’s recent anti-establishment stance should be seen.

No Baloch or supporter of Baloch rights can condone the Pakistani politicians’ tendency to ignore the Baloch. But we can all appreciate efforts to expand the circle of friends of the Baloch people from among opponents of Pakistan’s establishment.

ISI’s fake news ops get push back: Jang Geo group gets apology over false Cambridge Analytica allegations

It seems that the business of fake news is becoming less easy even though it has not come to an end. Just last month we at NP exposed Global Village Space as a fake news website (Why is a fauji propaganda site registered to Moeed Pirzada?)  Umer Ali, a Pakistani investigative reporter, exposed Eurasia Futures as a fake news website (Has Fake News in Pakistan Found Russian Allies?)

In 2017 we spoke about how the World was Cracking Down On Fake News but that Pakistan’s Media was At Serious Risk and on Pakistan’s addiction to Fake news

Both these websites Eurasiafuture.com and Global Village Space have now been taken to the cleaners.

Eurasiafuture.com and its website director Adam Garrie who alleged that Geo and Jang Group Editor in Chief, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman had links with Cambridge Analytica have now issued apologies, retracted their allegations and issued an undertaking that they will not repeat any false allegations ever again.

In their articles these fake news websites had alleged “that Jang/Geo Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, in connivance with Nawaz Sharif, built a narrative for Greater Punjab. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was accused of stepping up Pashtun movement and also put, through fake news, blame of Mumabi attacks on Pakistan. According to these articles, patriotic circles as well as some quarters of the Pak army accuse Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and Jang/Geo group of being foreign agents and promoting Western agenda in Pakistan. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was termed “media godfather” in these articles. It was also alleged that Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman had admitted to having campaigned against the judiciary and institutions. It was also alleged that the government advertisements are distributed through Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA). Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was also accused of openly conspiring against Axact channels with the help of Nawaz Sharif. It was alleged that Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman used his influence on the government machinery to block the pro-state narrative of Axact channels. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was also accused of spreading false narrative against Axact channels. It was further alleged that Nawaz Sharif had given Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman media publicity contract, and the latter was behind every political success of the former.”

In his apology Adam Garrie stated: “I requested the author of the Articles Mr Tayyab Baloch to provide any evidence to substantiate the serious and defamatory allegations made in the Articles against Mr Mir Shakil ur Rahman and/or Jang Group. Mr Tayyab Baloch refused and therefore could not and did not provide any such proof and so I have concluded that there was and is no evidence and that each the allegations made in the Articles against Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and/or the Jang Group were wholly false, fabricated, malicious and highly defamatory of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and/or Jang Group. I have also investigated each of the allegations made in the Articles and found them to be completely false, malicious and fabricated. By way of example only and to illustrate this, I found no evidence whatsoever to connect Cambridge Analytica with Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, Jang Group or his media conglomerate, nor is there any link of international funding of his media outlets to support any international political propaganda. Given the above I therefore consider it appropriate to make this retraction and unreserved apology to Mr Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, Geo TV and the Jang Group. I hereby irrevocably, completely and unreservedly retract and revoke each and every allegation made against Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and/or Geo TV and/or the Jang Group in the Articles as such allegations were and are wholly false, malicious, fabricated and highly defamatory.”

Further this apology by Eurasiafuture.com director will remain on the website for three months to “explain my feelings as how I felt betrayed and how I betrayed the trust of my readers which of course I regret deeply. I have written to others who lifted the same defamatory articles from my website and published them on their pages, it’s in no one’s interest to repeat these lies.”