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.”