In Pakistan, journalists’ woes have been one constant. Whether under civilian or military rule, the multidimensional challenges faced by journalists have remained the same. Kamran Khan, the well-known Pakistani anchor on Dunya TV, in a recent program equated journalists’ current predicament to the conditions under former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s (1977-88) rule. Adding support to his argument, Islamabad, the capital city, has reportedly been dubbed the “most dangerous place to practice journalism in Pakistan.”
Indeed, journalists are living in a constant nightmare in the capital following cases of abductions and beatings; on some occasions reporters have been targeted just because of their journalistic work. As a result, there are also reports of journalists fleeing Islamabad. A case in point is that of outspoken journalist Taha Siddiqui, who is currently living in exile in France.
Democracy was restored in Pakistan in 2008. In 2018, for only the second time in Pakistan’s history, the country will mark a peaceful transfer of power between civilian governments. Yet despite these developments, mainstream political parties have not paid any serious attention to the press. Even pro-democracy political parties have failed to provide succor for a free and vibrant press. Instead, these parties have only further bullied the press and media organizations upon coming.
It is constitutionally guaranteed in Pakistan that journalists can perform their duties independently. A free and independent press protects the fundamental norms of democracy. But unfortunately, in Pakistan, even so-called champions of democracy have ditched the media organizations, unless they are trying to use the media for their own vested interests.
In a telling example, Pakistan’s most famous television network, Geo TV, was shut down in April and told to remain off the air unless or until a deal was reached with the establishment for Geo TV to avoid reporting on certain issues, including the military and judiciary.
After that warning shot, Pakistani columnists shared their articles on Twitter, saying The News had refused to publish them. (The News and Geo TV are both owned by the Jang Group). One of The News’ regular columnists, Mosharraf Zaidi, claimed on Twitter that this was the first time in 10 years that the English-language paper had refused to publish his article.
This pressure on the media comes just a few months ahead of the 2018 general elections in Pakistan. Journalists and politicians, especially those belonging to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), fear that control over the press is meant to manipulate the elections. In the recent Senate elections, the PML-N’s candidate could not win the chair despite the party holding the most seats. All the other parties rallied together against Sharif and his party; the same thing is expected in the upcoming general elections.
The PML-N, led by disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is part of the anti-establishment camp and faces criticism from all sides. Sharif and current Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi have said that elections would be a contest between them and “aliens” – meaning the behind-the-scenes establishment.
Against that backdrop, space for a free media is increasingly shrinking. According to some journalists, the press is being deliberately suffocated.
Pakistan’s Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has ordered the private TV channel AAJ not to air programs by the BBC, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle. The order from PEMRA is highly undemocratic and against basic the principles of freedom of the press. What is more disturbing is that the ban is in line with common rhetoric that labels foreign media organizations in Pakistan as anti-state, anti-army, and agents of foreign countries intent on harming the interests of Pakistan.
Recently, Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper (which this author works with), ran an interview with Sharif. The former prime minister asked some tough question that angered Pakistan’s military establishment, including calling into question the military’s commitment to fighting terrorists. “Militant organizations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” Sharif asked in the interview.
As a result, at the Pakistan Army’s suggestion, a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) was held in Islamabad to discuss the interview. It did not end there. Instead, Pakistani authorities reportedly blocked the distribution of Dawn in remote areas of the country, particularly in Balochistan and Sindh. The Press Council of Pakistan has also served Dawn a notice that running the interview of Nawaz Sharif violated the Ethical Code of Practice.
Dawn’s crime is simple: it ran and published the interview. Although Dawn is Pakistan’s oldest newspaper — started by Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah on October 26, 1941, in Delhi before the partition – it is currently being put under tremendous pressure over its independent policies, which the paper is trying to maintain against all odds.
International NGO Reporters Without Borders denounced the move to block distribution of Dawn. “It is clear that the military high command does not want to allow a democratic debate in the months preceding a general election. We call on the authorities to stop interfering in the dissemination of independent media and to restore distribution of Dawn throughout Pakistan,” Reporters Without Borders said.
The future of free and independent press in Pakistan is at stake. Electronic media is already controlled, and now print media is being brought to heel — precisely because it provides space to dissent, critical thinking, and independent reporting.
Beyond the upcoming election, one of the main reasons for the current crackdown is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). This social movement erupted in Pakistan under the leadership of Manzoor Pashteen following the killing of a young Pastun man, Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud, in Karachi in a fake encounter.
The movement demands that the downtrodden Pashtuns of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) be given their constitutional rights, and the speeches given by Pashteen are critical of Pakistan’s military establishment. For this reason, electronic media in Pakistan has completely blacked out Pashteen’s speeches. PTM rallies and speeches are being reported only in a few English newspapers.
Following the blackout by Pakistan’s electronic media, however, Pashteen’s speeches have been given coverage in the international media. The PTM has been discussed by The New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC, among others. Voices like Pashteen’s cannot be suppressed in this current digital era.
Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Pakistan’s daily Dawn.