Media censorship continues unabated

Pakistan has one of the worst records on media freedom and suppression of dissent. Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Pakistan 142 on its press freedom index for 2019, down from 139 last year.

On the occasion of Pakistan’s 73rd Independence Day on August 15, an investigative report by Al Jazeera spoke about how in the Pakistani media the coverage of opposition leaders and civil society dissenters has been “’banned” by the government and the army.

In the report “journalists in Pakistan described to Al Jazeera as a sustained campaign of censorship that has targeted news organisations across the board, banning coverage of opposition politicians – and dissent more generally – under the aegis of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and the country’s powerful military.”

Yet, “Pakistan’s information ministry denied any involvement in press censorship to Al Jazeera. “We do not have any instrument, law or anything else by way of which we could apply pressure to anyone,” said ministry spokesperson Tahir Khushnood. In response to Al Jazeera’s questions, Pakistan’s military spokesperson said the “[media regulator] undertakes such regulatory measures as per law”. “ISPR [the military’s press wing] interacts with news media as official mouthpiece of military to share military’s perspective on various security issues,” said Major General Asif Ghafoor. The media regulator, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), offered no comment to Al Jazeera.”

Further, during his trip to Washington DC, Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted that “The Pakistani media, in my opinion, is even freer than the British media,” he said, advocating for greater internal media regulation. “The media in Pakistan is not just free, but sometimes out of control.” Days later, media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) termed that claim “an obscenity” in an open letter to Khan, documenting a series of attacks on press freedom perpetrated during Khan’s tenure, including legal cases against journalists, suspension of news channels and fatal attacks on reporters. “These brazen cases of censorship, which seriously threaten journalistic independence and pluralism, are characteristic of non-democratic regimes,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire in the letter.”

India and Pakistan should behave like responsible nuclear powers

In the aftermath of the August 5th decision by India to revoke Article 370, there has been a lot of rhetoric from both countries. Both countries need to behave like responsible nuclear powers.

The total state of shock within the Pakistani establishment is visible from the vitriol not just from Prime Minister Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi but also from former officials on the news and social media.

In this environment a tweet on Friday August 16th, the Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh that India’s NFU (No First Use) policy may not hold did not help and FM Qureshi responded immediately.

Pakistani Establishment’s India Paranoia

The Pakistani establishment’s paranoia about India appears to have reached fever pitch, from writing letter to the UNICEF to ask for removal of Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra as a goodwill ambassador to accusing social media giants of bias because of their ‘Indian employees.’

When Facebook and twitter suspended several Pakistani social media accounts for posting messages in support of violent action against Kashmir, the response of the head of ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor was to blame “Indian staff” working for these social media giants.

The government of Pakistan has also “lodged an official complaint with the United Nations, demanding the removal of Indian actress Priyanka Chopra as a UN goodwill ambassador over her “support for war” amid heightened tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. In a letter to the UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore, Pakistan’s human rights minister Shireen Mazari accused the 37-year-old actress and former Miss World of publicly endorsing the position of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in Indian-administered Kashmir.”

Maybe some introspection is needed. Social media giants the world over are cracking down on any kind of hate speech and that is the reason accounts have been suspended. Irrespective of the legality or illegality of the Indian action, calling for jihad or war with India is not going to help Pakistan’s cause or image.

Establishment-cultivated anger starts to backfire

Ever since the Ayub Khan era Pakistan’s establishment has built a narrative that the military is good and politicians are bad. This anger has been cultivated by the security establishment within the average Pakistani – both within the country and in the diaspora – using the educational curricula, the media, social media and films.

Over the last decade or so the establishment has promoted movies like Waar and Maalik that promote not only a jingoistic nationalism but portray politicians as feudal and corrupt, army as pure and selfless, and jihadis either as misguided or brainwashed by India. Waar 2013 film is focused on how a former Pakistani officer uncovers a plot by India’s intelligence agency (R &AW) while Maalik a 2016 film is focused on the story of a former special services commando who is hired to protect a corrupt feudal politician.

This anger cultivated for years was predicated on the fact that the politicians have not only been corrupt but also unpatriotic as they have been willing to speak to India while the army has ensured Pakistan’s survival and continued the eternal struggle for Kashmir. 

What is ignored in this narrative is that it is under army rule that Pakistan has not only lost the wars it fought with India but also lost half its territory and more than half its population (1971).

Ever since India revoked Article 370 and sought to integrate Jammu and Kashmir there has been an upsurge of Pakistani anger. The inability of the government of Pakistan to do anything much beyond speeches and news conferences and social media hashtags has not helped.

One example of Pakistani anger was recently experience by current Ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi. An army friendly former journalist Maleeha Lodhi has served the establishment well for almost two decades. She has represented Pakistan for over two decades – as Ambassador to the US (1994-1997, 1999-2002), to the UN (2015-present) and to the UK (2003-2008).

Lodhi was heckled at the close of an official event hosted by the Consulate General of Pakistan to the UN. In the video below a man heckled and accused her of corruption, saying “You are a thief and don’t deserve to represent Pakistan.” Lodhi is seeing evading questions raised by the Pakistan national during a UN event here. While the diplomat was apparently addressing media persons, the man, who seemed enraged, was heard asking whether she had a minute to answer his questions and then without waiting for a reply asked: “What are you doing from the last 15 to 20 years. You are not representing us.” Interestingly the person was pro establishment enough to be invited to this event.

Video below

Miltestablishment rules with an Iron fist

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan is worse than Purana Pakistan. At least under previous civilian leaders, the Prime Minister had some say. Today, the Miltestablishment has complete control over everything from media to economy to foreign policy and of course domestic politics.

In a recent piece, Agha Haider Raza, a Pakistan-based commentator provides details of the censorship and clampdown on the media. “Khan’s government has been enforcing unprecedented restrictions on the media in Pakistan since coming to power last year.  Under the watchful eye of the hyperactive miltablishment, the current civilian and military rulers have ushered in a new era of media management.  While the civilian government utilizes the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to silence media houses, anchorpersons and journalists by sending them legal notices, the miltablishment utilizes the popular messenger service, WhatsApp, to impose directives.  Military officers have been known to ring up journalists and media owners in the middle of the night, threatening them to alter media content and have it edited to their liking.”

In his piece “Pakistan Being Ruled With an Iron Fist,” Raza, says, “Not only are public rallies and interviews of political leaders blacked out, but leading journalists have been strictly ordered to pre-record their programs to ensure that content not suitable to the regime is broadcasted.  Today, without any legal notice served, a private TV channel was forced to off-air the program of leading journalist Najam Sethi. Journalists have been pursued to a point where they have been pressurized to close down their twitter accounts in order to stop public rebuking of the PTI government.  Newspapers have seen their distribution curtailed after criticizing the government. Recently, a demonstration was held by a union of journalists to protest the clamping down on the media space.  Calls were immediately made to ensure that no cameras would be sent by TV channels cover the event.”

Further, “The censoring and harassment of the media by the current regime Pakistan is rather ironic given the fact that when in the opposition, Imran Khan and the miltablishment fully exploited the media space.  Nawaz Sharif was barely into his third-term as prime minister when Khan besieged Islamabad by sitting atop a container in the red-zone and demanded Sharif’s resignation.  Khan received non-stop live coverage for his 126-day sit-in.  On many occasions, Khan himself has acknowledged that it was due to the electronic and social media in Pakistan, which gave him the political capital to secure the prime minister house.  Unfortunate that once in power, Khan has sought ways to block and shut down social media sites to avoid criticism of his fledgling government.  Pakistan’s military leadership has put all its eggs in the PTI basket and is working tirelessly, at home and abroad, to ensure that Imran Khan faces no impediments.  The top leadership of opposition parties have already been put behind bars and placed in jails on un-proven charges.”

Finally, “In a recent meeting, Imran Khan had an attendance with the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa, Director General ISI, General Faiz Hameed and Director General ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor.  One can only hope that they advised each other to focus more on governing and working towards strengthening the economy rather than having a dictatorial approach towards the media and opposition.  In a now iconic photograph, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf is seen patting his brow as he faced the media in his final days of power. Imran Khan and the top brass would be wise to remember the photograph, realizing the pen will always be mightier than the sword.”