Leaders of a civil rights movement demanding security and rights for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority have largely been denied any media coverage after the country’s powerful military accused them of being funded by foreign spy services.
In a telling example of the blanket censorship on the coverage of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, commonly known by its initials, PTM, Pakistan’s top military spokesman told journalists to refrain from giving the movement’s leaders any coverage.
“When we straighten their language and when they [the PTM leaders] are exposed, then you can keep them on TV 24/7,” Asif Ghafoor told journalists on April 29.
“Would you host someone on the television who says that ‘the uniform is behind terrorism?’” he said while repeating the PTM’s signature slogan.
Ghafoor, a major general in the army, is director general of the Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani military’s media wing. He was responding to a question by leading Pakistan journalist Hamid Mir, who thanked him for acknowledging that a free press could have prevented the dismemberment of the country in December 1971, when the former East Pakistan became an independent country, Bangladesh.
Earlier that year, Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan launched a military operation against the Awami League, the Bengali majority party in East Pakistan, that had swept the election in 1970. Khan’s regime imposed complete censorship on the Pakistani press. Most of the country’s newspapers were claiming victory even on December 16, 1971, when Pakistani forces surrendered to the Indian military and Bengali rebels after the fall of Dhaka.
The creation of Bangladesh often echoes in Pakistan’s handling of grievances championed by ethnic movements and political parties.
“The questions you have raised about the PTM are very valid,” Mir told Ghafoor. “Wouldn’t it be appropriate to invite the PTM’s leadership to the electronic media to ask them these questions?” he asked. “[This would also help answer] their accusations that the DG (Director General) ISPR is behind denying us any media coverage and has imposed restrictions [on the coverage of the movement].”
Dozens of Pakistani television stations carried Ghafoor’s nearly 90-minute press conference live, and it became the lead story in many newspapers and news websites. Only Dawn, the country’s leading English-language daily, carried a response from the movement.
In what is considered the most forceful statement by the military against the PTM, Ghafoor said “time is up” for the movement because it is playing into the hands of “the others.” He blamed Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and India’s Research and Analysis Wing intelligence services for funding the PTM. Since its emergence in February 2018, the movement has held dozens of major protest rallies across Pakistan.
"No one will be hurt, and nothing illegal will be done,” he told journalists. “Everything will be done according to the law. Whatever liberties you could take, you have taken."
Hours later, PTM lawmakers Ali Wazir and Mohin Dawar held an impromptu press conference inside the parliament building in Islamabad.
“We are ready to face any accusations, be they inside the parliament or a court of law or any other institution in this county,” Wazir told journalists late on April 29. “Such accusations were leveled against the Bengalis and leaders of other ethnicities such as [Pashtun leaders] Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, [Sindhi leader] Ghulam Murtaza Sayed, and [Baluch leader] Nawab Akbar Bugti.”
Not one Pakistan television stations broadcast the PTM press conference.
Wazir and Dawar represent the western Waziristan region in the parliament. Home to major Pashtun tribes including the Wazir, Mehsud, Dawar, Bhittani, and Sulaimankhel tribes, the region was the epicenter of Pakistan’s domestic war on terrorism.
Pashtuns make up more than 15 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million people. Beginning in 2003, attacks by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and allied militants and military operations killed tens of thousands of Pashtuns in Waziristan and other districts of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and some regions of predominantly Pashtun-populated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Last year, FATA was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Estimates by aid agencies and officials suggest the conflict also displaced more than 6 million Pashtuns in the decade following 2004.
PTM leaders say their movement is a reaction to such suffering.
The movement campaigns for an end to illegal killings, forced disappearances, harassment by security forces, accountability for their losses, and clearing landmines from Waziristan and other conflict zones.
PTM leaders and activists have faced police investigations, arbitrary arrests, detention, and treason allegations since the emergence of their movement in early 2018.
Lawmaker Wazir said they are ready to face all obstacles on the path to gaining rights.
“While they malign us in any possible manner to pave the way toward targeting us, can’t we just reply to their allegations?” he asked.