Last week, Pakistan authorities closed the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Pashto-language Radio Mashaal in Islamabad. This week, the organization says that its reporters have been facing pressure from the authorities, while Islamabad’s reasoning for the closure has shifted.
The closure can be seen as the next step in Pakistan’s ongoing crackdown on media, and also as a result of deteriorating relations between Washington and Islamabad.
According to RFE/RL, officials from the Interior Ministry arrived at their offices on January 19 to present a closure order. The order stated that ISI — Pakistan’s top intelligence agency — said Radio Mashaal aired programs “against the interests of Pakistan” and, furthermore, were “in-line with hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.”
The notice listed problematic themes, including “portraying Pakistan a hub of terrorism and safe haven for different militant groups,” “propagating Pakistan as failed state in terms of providing security to its people specially (sic) minorities and Pashtoons,” “showing Pashtoons (sic) population of PK/FATA and Balochistan disenchanted with the state,” and “distorting facts incite (sic) the target population against the state and its institutions.”
That Pakistan considers such topics taboo is no surprise.
Umer Ali, a freelance Pakistani journalist, chronicled the abduction of several bloggers in a February 2017 article for The Diplomat, noting that “state-sponsored censorship seems to be expanding from topics like Balochistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); from mainstream to social media.”
Taha Siddiqui, an Islamabad-based journalist he spoke with, said, “[the] state has financially squeezed news networks if they have tried to challenge the state narrative or openly report on taboo topics like Pakistani military affairs independently, since ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces] manages stories on such topics.”
Siddiqui went on to say that the “worst part is that journalists and activists have no idea what the red line is anymore and the state has started to react even more violently when it wants to clamp down on those who are vocal about critically evaluating sociopolitical issues in Pakistan.”
Earlier this month, Siddiqui escaped what he described as an attempt by a dozen men to abduct him. The men beat and threatened to kill him, according to a BBC report. The previous month, Siddiqui had been featured in a BBC article about Pakistan’s crackdown on journalists.
While Pakistani journalists and freelancers in the country have faced increasing pressure in recent years, the closure of RFE/RL moves beyond harassing and closing local outlets.
RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan federal agency. RFE/RL’s network of services in local languages and states its intention to serve as a “surrogate free press.” Its Cold War founding, coupled with paranoia in many regions (particularly South and Central Asia) about its motivation, lend to frequent accusations that it serves as just a front for U.S. intelligence agencies, primarily the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent pushed back against the closure and Islamabad’s accusation, saying, “Radio Mashaal serves no intelligence agency or government… Our reporters are Pakistani citizens who are dedicated to their country and live and raise families in the villages in which they report.”
On January 26, Kent said there were indications that the Pakistani authorities were seeking to compel RFE/RL’s local staff to make statements against the news organization. Such “forced confessions” are often compelled by security services threatening the families of journalists if they do not agree to speak out against their employers. The security services get a statement they can hold up as “evidence” to affirm their accusations.
The timing of the closure of RFE/RL’s Pakistan service is important to note.
Steven Butler, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator, said in an interview with the Associated Press that “The order to close Radio Mashaal is a draconian move by Pakistani authorities and a direct threat to press freedom.”
Butler went on to say that while it is difficult to determine what led to the order, “it is certainly only the latest move from the military that puts pressure on the media to stay away from sensitive issues, including criticism of the military itself.” Butler also noted that the order could also be in part a retaliation for U.S. President Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018:
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
One of the core facets of the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy has been the loud and repeated accusation that Pakistan serves as a safe haven for terrorists groups.
Trump said, verbatim, in announcing his South Asia strategy: “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.”
If ISI’s demands — no “portraying Pakistan [as] a hub of terrorism and safe haven for different militant groups” — were to be followed, it would be impossible for RFE/RL’s Pakistani journalists to even mention Trump’s South Asia strategy.
Instead of addressing the root causes — the actual reasons why Pakistan is often described in unflattering terms — Islamabad seems intent on simply muzzling voices it doesn’t want to hear and playing the victim.