Pakistan People’s Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto, while addressing a ceremony on World Press Freedom Day in Karachi, said that Pakistani media is facing undeclared censorship. Sadly, the journalist community agrees with him.
Pakistan’s media houses are working under a climate of fear, which is affecting their coverage and operations. Journalists are increasingly practicing self-censorship to save both their jobs and lives; they are bullied on social media, abducted in broad daylight, and threatened for reporting facts.
The government is controlling advertisements for news channels in an attempt to silence them. It is a very sorry situation for media houses that heavily rely on government advertisements. The most recent example is the country’s most-read English language newspaper, Dawn, and its TV channel, whose advertisements were banned on Press Freedom Day. Mubashir Zaidi, a senior journalist affiliated with said channel, broke the news in one of his tweets.
— Mubashir Zaidi (@Xadeejournalist) May 3, 2019
Pakistan ranked 142nd out of 180 countries – falling three places from 2018 – in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
“The red line has expanded. The establishment is interfering at every possible level. There are no free talk shows. News and articles are censored. It is comprehensive censorship,” columnist and analyst Imtiaz Alam said.
The “red line” now includes criticism of the powerful military of Pakistan and the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, coverage of rights-based alliance Pashtun Tahaffuz movement (PTM), and reporting on former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is currently in jail.
Journalists who cross these red lines face a range of threats, from loss of livelihood to loss of life. A special report of the Pakistan Press Foundation revealed that at least 48 journalists were killed in targeted attacks in the last 17 years. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are considered the most dangerous provinces for journalists in Pakistan.
Legal action is also used to keep the press quiet. According to a report on the state of Pakistani media in 2018 published by the Pakistan Press Foundation, seven journalists and one media organization owner faced legal actions in 2018.
This year, senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani was accused of cyberterrorism based on his comments on the missing persons issue on a talk show. Jillani is facing charges under Sections 10(a) (cyberterrorism), 11 (hate speech), and 20 (malicious code) of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016.
Cyril Almeida is facing treason charges and travel restrictions after he published an interview with Nawaz Sharif, in which the three-time prime minister of Pakistan accused the Pakistani military of aiding the armed group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The report also mentions that there were at least 31 instances of journalists, anchorpersons, and television channels being issued show-cause notices, anchorpersons being suspended, websites being blocked, and disruptions to the distribution of newspapers.
And the government is moving to tighten its control over media outlets even further. The federal cabinet approved the formation of Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) – a single body to regulate all forms of media — on January 25, 2019.
Journalists condemned the decision and called it an attempt to curb freedom of the press. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists released a statement afterward calling the move in violation of the constitution.
“This is in violation of Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. Establishment of a federal institution to regulate printing and publication — which is a provincial subject after the 18th Constitutional Amendment — interferes in the domain of provinces and is, therefore, also in violation of the Constitution,” the statement reads.
Currently, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) regulate electronic and print media respectively. There is no separate body to regulate or monitor digital media platforms. It is believed that the PTI government created this body mostly to control digital media platforms.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani miltary’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) issued a notification on April 16, which contained names of 26 retired officers of the armed forces who can appear on media as defense analysts.
“Their views/comments/opinions on media shall remain personal/independent expression and not attributable to the institution,” the notification reads.
In another notification dated April 4 and released by PEMRA, TV channels were directed to seek prior clearance from ISPR before inviting retired military officers to share their views on defense and security-related matters.
Websites have also been shut down for their critical reporting and extensive coverage of issues the authorities would rather not be covered. The Urdu website of the United States’ Voice of America was shut down in Pakistan in December 2018 allegedly for covering PTM rallies. VOA reporters claim that the Pashto website was blocked months before that.
Then-Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry had commented that the websites were blocked for false and prejudiced reporting. However, VOA English wrote in a news story that Pakistani authorities were scrutinizing media coverage of the PTM, blocking VOA websites, and filing police cases against journalists covering its public gatherings.
Still, websites are the most popular platform among journalists in Pakistan as they give them space, which is shrinking in mainstream media.
“Earlier we had one PTV, now we have many,” Ammar Masood, a senior columnist and analyst said, referring to the state-owned Pakistan Television network, which is the mouthpiece of the government.
Masood writes a column for a leading Urdu newspaper. Often his columns are rejected for publication; he sends those to an online website run by his colleague, Wajahat Masood.
“It’s not about my column only; it is the overall situation of media in Pakistan. Whoever talks pro-democracy, his voice is shut down. Those who think differently are out of a job this time. Talat Hussain, Matiullah Jan, Murtaza Solangi, and I are examples,” Ammar Masood explained.
Journalists are moving to social media platforms after getting sacked from their jobs. Some have made their own YouTube channels, where they publish their analysis on different political happenings.
“Social media penetration in Pakistan is quite impressive. You can receive a huge response on your content there, which shows that there exists an information gap. People want to get information but they are not getting it,” Masood said.
At the end of last year, many journalists including Mubashir Zaidi, Taha Siddiqui, and Gul Bukhari complained of receiving emails from Twitter about an “official correspondence” regarding some of their tweets.
When Fawad Chaudhry was asked about those Twitter notices, he said that the government was not sending any requests to Twitter.
However, Twitter released a transparency report on Friday which said that between July and December in 2018, the PTI government sent requests for the removal of 193 accounts and reported 2,349 profiles to the micro-blogging website.
A number of senior journalists have started their own news and opinion-based websites. Imtiaz Alam has also announced the launch of two news websites – one for South Asia in English and the other in Urdu specifically for Pakistani audience – besides a YouTube channel. He announced the news in a tweet on his personal twitter account.
Earlier, Alam wrote in a tweet that a talk show producer who had invited him as a guest analyst canceled his invite just a few hours before the show.
In fact, I resigned from GEO and don’t feel to appear in any TV show. Most are afraid to invite me to their shows and others invite and cancel it. So, please don’t invite me, I don’t like your TV shows. They are not worth it.
— Imtiaz Alam (@ImtiazAlamSAFMA) April 25, 2019
“No television channel can air programs which are in violation of instructions from Rawalpindi [the Pakistan army]. If someone does this they are blacklisted and not invited in the shows. If they get invited, their invitation can be dropped [at any moment],” he said.
What if his new websites get blocked? Alam said that he would not stop.
“We will keep trying. We will keep exploring platforms but we will never do anything which is ethically wrong. They could have differences with our editorial policy but that is all right,” he said.
Tehreem Azeem is a digital media journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She reports on human rights violations, conflicts, and censorship. She tweets @tehreemazeem.