Censorship appears to be increasingly gripping Pakistani media as journalists, watchdogs, and media organizations blame attempts by the country’s powerful military to silence critics and prevent the coverage of protests that criticize its policies and actions.
This week, several leading newspapers either refused to publish articles on the Pashtuns’ protests or deleted stories they had already published. Organized under the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Pashtun Protection Movement, members of Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic group have rallied to demand security and rights.
This month, Geo TV -- Pakistan’s leading television news channel -- was prevented from reaching audiences through cable networks. On April 16, a provincial court ordered a government regulator to ensure that “anti-judiciary” speeches of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were prevented from being aired on television. The two have campaigned against the military’s attempted to micromanage politics in the country.
Murtaza Solangi, a senior Pakistani journalist and television talk show host, says the ongoing attempts to muzzle the press are magnified by endemic self-censorship, wherein most of the country’s print and electronic media actively avoid covering sensitive issues.
“[The censorship is prompted by] insecurity of the military establishment determined to get a positive outcome of [their liking] in the next polls,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website on April 17. “[This is why] banning Geo TV is also a message to all and sundry to fall in line and sign the dotted line.”
Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist and commentator, has complained that a leading English-language daily, The News, turned down his oped for the first time in 10 years. The piece about PTM advised Islamabad that “the last thing Pakistan should be doing is to deny Pakistanis the opportunity to express solidarity with fellow citizens.” The News is published by the Jang group, which also owns Geo.
“This unnecessary muzzling of debate is not healthy,” he wrote on Twitter. “Strong nations cultivate robust debate. Weak ones fear it.”
On April 15, three columns about the PTM disappeared from the website of The News. Farah Zia, an editor in charge of The News On Sunday section, which printed the articles, told BBC Urdu that her organization’s management ordered her to take down the articles.
“Our articles were widely publicized on social media on Sunday,” she said. “But then I received a message from our management to remove them.”
On April 14, Babar Sattar, an Islamabad-based lawyer and commentator, said The News turned down his weekly column, which discussed the PTM protests.
“Media is banned from mentioning PTM. Geo and Jang are shut down and ordered not to touch sensitive topics,” he wrote on Twitter.
Pakistani media reported that on April 17, the country’s top Supreme Court judge asked Sharif and his daughter to appear before him in a case involving their “anti-judiciary speeches.”
The order followed a directive by a provincial high court in the eastern province of Punjab on April 16 that ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, a government media watchdog, to monitor electronic media outlets for anti-judiciary speeches by the two leaders.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Sharif in July 2017 on corruption allegations.
In a statement on April 16, journalists and activists expressed serious concern about suppression of freedom of expression, rights-based movements, and dissent.
“The representatives of civil society and media took serious exception to the ongoing reign of repression against a section of media, rights-based movements, and those who are critical of an extended role of non-elected institutions,” their joint statement noted.
“They cautioned against fascist designs, authoritarian machinations, and unconstitutional manipulations by autocratic and extremist forces to scuttle fundamental civil, human, and social rights, usurp rule of law, and hijack overall democratic processes and political transition,” the statement added.
Pakistan’s military denies being behind the media clampdown. It also denies the PTM’s allegations that it is involved in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and other grave rights abuses.
In an apparent reference to the PTM on April 12, army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa said ‘engineered protests” would not be allowed. In a speech on April 14, he hinted that the military viewed the movement’s protests and its media coverage as a hybrid war.
“Our enemies know they cannot beat us fair and square and have thus subjected us to a cruel, evil, and protracted hybrid war,” he said. “They are trying to weaken our resolve by weakening us from within.”
Solangi, however, says the expanding media censorship is turning Pakistan into an authoritarian state similar to Egypt, ruled by military strongman President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
He says the growing censorship is likely to overshadow the parliamentary elections slotted for this year.
“Banning channels, stopping articles from getting published, and stopping speeches of political leaders [from broadcasting] will ensure that the next elections will be neither fair nor free,” he said.