ISLAMABAD — When journalist Marvi Sirmed returned home to Islamabad with her family last week from vacation, she was shocked to find her house ransacked. She feared a robbery, until she noticed that most of her valuables, like watches and jewelry, were taken out of drawers and strewn around the house, whereas two laptops, a phone, and some of her family’s travel documents were missing.
Sirmed experienced a disturbing feeling of familiarity. It was the third time this had happened to her.
The alleged “thieves” who had broken into her house had gone through all of her documents, particularly her files on human rights cases and unofficial diplomacy initiatives with India or Afghanistan. The intruders had also listened to, and erased audio from, voice recorders she used for reporting, but left the devices behind.
“What kind of thieves are interested in only data and documents?” she questioned.
Sirmed, who is a known critic of the military and extremist groups in Pakistan, is not the only person who has been targeted in recent days. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, anyone critical of the state these days is being targeted, reportedly by security agencies.
Earlier this month, Gul Bukhari, another journalist who was active in supporting a rights movement seemingly in the crosshairs of the military, was on her way to her TV station in Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, when her car was stopped, and men in civilian clothing took her away. The resulting uproar led to her release a few hours later. She did not identify her assailants, only issuing a brief statement asking that media respect her privacy.
Pakistan has long had a mixed record on press freedom. It has a vibrant private media, often strongly criticizing the sitting government and reporting on everything from corruption to internal party politics; however, state and non-state actors, including religious extremists or members of separatist movements, often threaten, attack, or even kill journalists.
In the restive Balochistan province, for example, a separatist group, known as the Balochistan Liberation Front, threatened journalists last year for failing to include their perspective. They later rescinded their threat.
Similarly, religious groups often use accusations such as blasphemy to put pressure on media groups as well as individual journalists. In a religiously conservative country, such an allegation can be tantamount to a death threat.
Since the beginning of last year, however, several rights groups have reported that harassment from state actors, particularly against those critical of Pakistan’s powerful military or intelligence agencies, has significantly intensified.
In January 2017, five bloggers known to criticize the military in their online comments were subjected to enforced disappearance. Four of them returned in a few weeks after a national outcry and were forced to leave the country. The fifth is still missing. “Two of them later said they had been tortured while in military intelligence custody,” according to Amnesty International.
In its 2017-2018 country report on Pakistan, Amnesty International highlighted the impunity with which journalists and rights activists were targeted.
“The crackdown on freedom of expression intensified,” the report said, adding that a cyber crime law passed in 2016 was “used to intimidate, harass and arbitrarily detain human rights defenders for online comments. Enforced disappearances were widespread; impunity was prevalent.”
Newspaper columnists have increasingly complained in private, and sometimes in public, that editorial comments have been subjected to censorship.
“For the first time in over a decade, @thenews_intl has refused to publish my column,” tweeted Mosharraf Zaidi. “Media is banned from mentioning #PTM. Geo-Jang shut down/ordered not to touch sensitive topics. So my Saturday column couldn’t be published #TheAgeOfFreeControlledMedia,” tweeted another columnist, Babar Sattar.
The management of Pakistan’s oldest English newspaper said its distribution was being disrupted.
“Hawkers and sales agents are being subjected to continued harassment, threats and physical coercion, while attempting to deliver copies of Dawn to our regular subscribers,” said a statement issued by the paper's management last week.
The Pakistan military’s spokesman has accused some journalists of becoming pawns to anti-state elements.
In a press conference, Major General Asif Ghafoor set up a chart on a projector showing a ring of journalists, activists, and political parties retweeting what he said were anti-state tweets from troll accounts.
“If you see the red line, it is over 10,000 accounts, that show the growth in the accounts that tweet anti-state, anti-army, anti-Pakistan and anti-forces propaganda,” he said.
The pressure on journalists and media houses has intensified to the point that a recent survey by advocacy group Media Matters for Democracy found that 88 percent of Pakistani journalists practice self-censorship. The group said the survey’s findings showed “a grim picture of the contemporary press freedom landscape in the country.”
-- Reported by Aysha Tanzim for Voice Of America