In the run-up to this year’s election, Pakistani journalists, campaigners, and international media watchdogs complained of mounting censorship.
Now that the election is over, any discussion of the alleged rigging and irregularities that marred the process has emerged as an off-limits topic for the country’s newspapers and television channels.
As several Pakistani political parties gear up for protests this week, newspaper articles and TV talks shows that address the rigging or blame the powerful military for manipulating the vote to favor cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party are being censored. (The PTI, the military, the election commission, and the civilian interim government all reject rigging allegations and complaints of censorship.)
“The new wave of censorship is aimed at muzzling the voices disputing the election results,” Murtaza Solangi, a senior Pakistani journalist and television talk show host, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Journalist Syed Talat Hussain expressed his disappointment when Geo News, one of Pakistan’s leading television news outlets, censored part of his August 5 nighttime show that focused on election rigging allegations.
“Censorship is the last refuge of the culprit,” he wrote on Twitter. “This censorship and those enforcing it have turned free debate in this country next to impossible.”
Hussain said that Geo News’ editorial committee “made a complete joke” of his show by censoring its parts. He added that the censorship was prompted by his channel’s recent closure in various parts of Pakistan as it still faces threats of a complete shutdown.
“If the elections were not rigged, no one should have a problem with debating the allegations,” he noted.
Saleem Safi, another journalist working for Geo News, was less vocal after the channel apparently axed two of his interviews with leading politicians about the alleged vote rigging.
Despite promoting the shows, Geo News didn’t broadcast Safi’s interviews with Islamist leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party. Both have alleged rigging in the July 25 vote.
Pakistan’s English-language daily The Nation refused to publish politician Afrasiab Khattak's weekly column because it criticized the country’s powerful military for manipulating the election.
“If there was no industrial scale rigging in the recent elections, why is [a] critical analysis of the same blocked on TV [sic] channels?” he wrote on Twitter, “If intelligence agencies weren’t involved in rigging, why are they blocking media coverage of the opposition?”
Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the military, however, rejected imposing any censorship or manipulating the media.
“We have never told any journalist or media owners what to say and what not to,” he told journalists in June. “We have always told them that Pakistan needs to unite, and we need to bring forward its strengths and success. I thank media for their willing cooperation.”
In July, he dismissed criticism of the military as part of political posturing in an election year. "This is an election year. Political parties are fighting for power, and this fight has to be at each other’s expense,” he told journalists.
But since the beginning of this year, Pakistani journalists, television stations, newspapers, politicians, and international media watchdogs have complained about increasing censorship.
Solangi says censorship is extensive but targeted, which perhaps explains why it has not been protested widely by television and newspaper owners who are reliant on government advertising and some expect their media investments to always yield profits.
“The new wave of censorship is targeted and selective. Powerful voices with more credibility and more reach are the targets,” he said. “Raising questions about the recent electoral process, its legitimacy and fairness, are the new no-entry zones.”
Khattak sees ominous signs for press freedom. “They [the military] are pushing the censorship to an extent that it becomes the new normal and is not even questioned,” he told Gandhara RFE/RL.
Solangi, however, sees a mixed picture. “The media may get a breather,” he says while referring to the planned transfer of power to the new elected government this month.
He sees press freedom reversing if the new administration runs into problems.
“The cat-and-mouse game may start again as the new rainbow [coalition] setup starts breaking at the seams and if the united opposition creates a debilitating effect,” he predicted.