Declan Walsh, the Islamabad Bureau Chief for The New York Times, was ordered to leave Pakistan, on May 9, just before this year’s crucial elections.
As reported in the paper, a vague letter, delivered to Walsh by police officers on Thursday night, stated: “It is informed that your visa is hereby canceled in view of your undesirable activities. You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours.”
Given that Walsh lived in and covered Pakistan for nearly a decade – during his tenure at The Guardian, and then later with The New York Times – the order has come as a shock to the journalistic community both within and outside the country.
“Pakistan has expelled one of its most reliable and sane foreign voices,” Saad Sarfraz Sheikh, an independent photojournalist, told The Diplomat, “It just shows how our ‘democracy’ and establishment cannot digest a free media. And then we complain of having a bad image in the West!”
“Here I go. Hard to believe this is happening,” Walsh tweeted on May 12. He later tweeted, “72 hours, wheels up. To all friends, especially in Pakistan, who offered overwhelming support in recent days, thank you so much.”
Journalist Rabia Mehmood told The Diplomat that Walsh’s expulsion sets a “scary” precedent for journalists in Pakistan. Mehmood said this incident “shows us yet again that the security of a journalist remains one of the biggest issues” in the country and that “the powers that be will keep reminding us as to who calls the shots [in Pakistan].”
According to Malik Siraj Akbar, the editor of The Baloch Hal, a website that remains blocked in Pakistan, Walsh was “one of the most well-known and widely respected journalists” in Pakistan. “He was one reporter who covered Pakistan beyond the stereotypical lens of security, terrorism and fundamentalism,” Akbar told The Diplomat.
Akbar added, “During the past couple of years, space for free expression has alarmingly shrunk in Pakistan even during democratic governments. Journalists are uncertain about the level and the period of freedom they can enjoy. The government still is powerful enough to unplug any journalist's activities.”
In 2011, Walsh gave an enlightening talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on the “War on Secrecy: The Impact of WikiLeaks on Journalism” to a packed auditorium. At the time, the journalist was working as a correspondent for The Guardian.
Personally, I found Walsh’s talk to be a fascinating one. He not only spoke about WikiLeaks and its impact on the world and the media industry in general, but also about his own personal experiences working as a journalist in Pakistan.
But Walsh’s expulsion is only one example of the local government’s efforts to silence the media and curb freedom of speech in Pakistan.
YouTube, for instance, has been banned in Pakistan since September 2012, when the trailer of the controversial production, Innocence of Muslims, was uploaded to the site. The trailer sparked protests across the country.
“The government’s decision to continue blocking YouTube also shows Pakistan’s problems with freedom of expression,” Akbar told The Diplomat. “Pakistan is one such country that feels deeply insecure about Western journalists. Officials in the country’s military suspect many Western journalists are spies for foreign governments.”
This sensitivity to the outside world, it seems, is the heart of the matter.
“Within Pakistan, there is a certain level of expectation of the government from the journalists to respect ‘our nationalist interests’ or ‘to improve our national image,’” Akbar added. “When Western journalists report on sensitive issues (like terrorism and human rights) that embarrass Pakistani authorities, they then accuse these journalists of spying or indulging in undesired activities. These are just some of the pretexts the government uses to expel foreign journalists.”
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: [email protected]