Pakistan: censorship by stealth
The media in Pakistan is suffering a crisis of independence. The encroaching influence of the military is having a deleterious effect and reporters are resorting to self-censorship to stay on the right side of the most powerful institution in Pakistan today.
According to a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report from September this year, the pressures the military quietly exerts on journalists that encourage self-censorship are multifaceted.
Sometimes it can be quite blunt. Take the case of Gul Bukhari, a social media activist who was abducted by masked men in Lahore’s army-controlled cantonment area. (She was later freed.) ‘I think Gul’s abduction came at a time when there was immense pressure on the press to fall in line with the establishment’s line,’ says Aliya Iftikhar, Asia Research Associate at CPJ. ‘Her abduction definitely added to the climate of fear and the feeling that no critical voices were safe.’
Matiullah Jan, a former anchor at the television news channel Waqt News was also someone who challenged the status quo, probing and questioning the military apparatus. He was subsequently attacked last year in a roadside incident.
Matiullah says: ‘The kind of environment in which journalists are working is the most self-censored, which in effect adds to their fears and apprehensions. Therefore, many questions are not being asked about the role of the military and the conduct of the military and judges. These are the questions that are deliberately not asked.’
Many of the journalists I spoke to would not go on the record, due to the sensitivity of their jobs. However, whether from print, television or digital media, all agreed that self-censorship is on the rise, especially with the changing business scene for the media.
Many of the major networks and print media organizations are facing significant financial pressures. Pakistan’s leading Urdu daily paper Jang News has been reduced to just 8 pages. Recently Waqt News sacked all its staff and shut down its operations after 10 years of broadcasting. Matiullah was forced to resign from his role as anchor.
According to a senior broadcaster who spoke on condition of anonymity: ‘The government has added to the financial crisis, [indeed] it has actually triggered the financial crisis of media houses by revoking all government business, which used to come in the shape of advertisements. There was no time given for us to adopt a new business model in order to create chaos, in order to prevent us from holding the government accountable.’
Matiullah Jan agrees. ‘There is this impression that this is a financial crisis which is a natural sequence to the interplay of many economic forces which is [actually] not the case,’ he says. He believes it is the establishment – directed by the intelligence agencies – interfering, citing a meeting of media owners with the military’s media spokesperson where the federal Information Minister was also present.
A number of media owners I spoke to confirmed a meeting did take place on 16 October, saying that the Prime Minister then released the advertising funds – a form of ‘blackmail’ to get the media to sing the establishment’s tune. They allege they were pushed to carry out unnecessary sackings, in order to create a facade of financial pressures.
One of the results is an increase in self-censorship. I spoke to many journalists regarding the deletion of social media tweets. ‘They used to call us and ask us to delete tweets or other social media posts, but [are] now creating a false financial bubble through our bosses. [It] is too much,’ said a print journalist in Karachi.
Another, in Islamabad, spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the conditions of her employment. ‘How it works is, if they, the establishment, are unhappy with a post you get a call from Colonel Shafiq who pressures you into removing the post in question, and if you don’t there are consequences at your place of employment.’ Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Shafiq Malik is the Assistant Director of Domestic Media for Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the armed forces.
Taha Siddiqui, a journalist who was attacked earlier this year has shared the pressures applied by ISPR in a tweet regarding how he was approached by Colonel Shafiq. Colonel Shafiq did not respond to several requests for comment.
‘The climate for a free press, in general, is not conducive,’ says Asad Beyg from Media Matters for Democracy, an Islamabad-based non-profit. ‘For digital [media] it’s even worse because most accredited journalists bodies don’t recognize digital journalism as “real” journalism.’
He cites the case against Cyril Almeida who has been issued a non-bailable warrant after an interview with ousted former PM Nawaz Sharif, while banned outfits like Tehreek-e-Labbaik continue to operate freely. ‘This gives an impression that laws such as Pakistans’s Electronic Crimes Act are used to curb journalism.’
Malik Siraj Akbar says the situation regarding press freedoms is far worse in the troubled province of Balochistan. He should know; he was the former Bureau Chief in Balochistan for the Daily Times newspaper and now lives in exile in Washington DC. ‘Most of the interesting stories that derive from Balochistan embarrass the military establishment,’ he says, ‘such as enforced disappearances, the killing of activists or presence of extremist groups.
Therefore, these cannot be reported on as they are considered as “negative” by the government.’ Akbar alleges that many of his stories were ‘thrashed’ by his editors in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad due to a mutual understanding with the Pakistani military.
Matiullah Jan is pensive about the future of press freedoms in Pakistan. ‘These days media owners have surrendered,’ he says. ‘The consequences may not be physical or political but [are] now financial, ultimately forcing journalists to be silenced.’ This is the new model of censorship in Pakistan which will leave many stories untold.