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'Tightening The Noose': Pakistani Journalists Turn To Social Networks As Mainstream Media Gagged

FILE: A Pakistani journalist signs a banner during a protest to mark World Press Freedom day in Karachi in May 2018.
FILE: A Pakistani journalist signs a banner during a protest to mark World Press Freedom day in Karachi in May 2018.

Pakistani television host Murtaza Solangi's current-affairs show was on-air, broadcasting a taped interview with an opposition figure about a military coup that took place a decade earlier, when the program was abruptly cut off.

The veteran journalist with independent Capital TV exchanged heated words with the managing director and was told to quit immediately. Solangi, who resigned the next day, suspected that the channel had been pressured to halt the broadcast.

"That is the level of censorship in Pakistan," Solangi recalled of that day in October. "In the mainstream media, the military establishment doesn’t allow critical voices."

Solangi's incident came amid signs that Pakistan's free press was coming under unprecedented pressure from the military -- an institution that has an oversize role in domestic and foreign affairs in the South Asian country.

In the past two years, dozens of prominent reporters have been fired or have left after being threatened; the nation's most popular TV channel has been forced off the air; and leading columnists have complained that stories that are critical of the army and intelligence agencies are being rejected by media outlets.

With the free press gagged, many journalists in Pakistan have turned to social media to get the word out. But even those platforms are under pressure from Pakistani authorities.

'No Other Option'

"Journalists with critical voices have no other option but to turn to social media," says Solangi, a former director at state-run Radio Pakistan who also worked as a journalist at Voice of America. "The authorities have tightened the noose around the media."

Pakistani television host Murtaza Solangi: "Journalists with critical voices have no other option but to turn to social media."
Pakistani television host Murtaza Solangi: "Journalists with critical voices have no other option but to turn to social media."

Since he left his current-affairs show, Solangi has continued his critical reporting on Twitter and YouTube on issues that are seen as off-limits to journalists in the mainstream media: criticism of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, believed to be close to the military brass; coverage of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has denounced the army's heavy-handed operations in the militancy-hit tribal regions; and reporting on jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was controversially removed from power and had a history of falling out with the military establishment.

Solangi is active on Twitter, where he has 245,000 followers, and has started his own YouTube channel in which he provides analysis of national issues.

Solangi is among dozens of leading Pakistani reporters who have left mainstream media and turned to social media.

Syed Talat Hussain, a prominent anchor and columnist, was the host of a prime-time current-affairs talk show on Pakistan’s most popular TV station, Geo News. In November, he announced on Twitter that he was leaving. He provided no explanation.

In April 2018, Hussain said in a tweet that the day Geo was unable to "allow space for balanced journalism" there would be "no reason for me to continue to appear on their platform."

His tweet came after Geo TV, part of Pakistan's largest commercial media group, Jang, was taken off the air in many parts of the country. The ban only ended a month later after talks between the military and the network's chiefs, who pledged to change the network's coverage.

Weeks earlier, Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa held an off-the-record briefing with a group of journalists in which he described Geo TV as "subversive" and warned the channel that it would face consequences for crossing "red lines" by challenging the military.

Since leaving Geo TV, Hussain has launched his own YouTube channel -- Straight Talk With Hussain -- that has garnered more than 41,000 subscribers. He has also increased his engagement on Twitter, where he has more than 3 million followers. ​

Crackdown On Social Media

Even as social media has become an important outlet for critical journalism, these platforms are coming under growing pressure from authorities.

In the past two years, dozens of journalists, activists, and government critics have faced legal action over their online posts.

In February, the government announced the creation of a new enforcement authority to clamp down on social-media users accused of spreading "hate speech and violence." That came after authorities passed a controversial cybercrimes law in 2016 that granted sweeping powers to the government to block online content they deem illegal. Offenders can face up to 14 years in prison. Critics say the moves are intended to curtail free speech and have led to unfair prosecutions.

Pakistani journalist Shahzeb Jillani is accused of "cyberterrorism" and making "defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan."
Pakistani journalist Shahzeb Jillani is accused of "cyberterrorism" and making "defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan."

In April, Pakistan's law enforcement agency filed a case against Shahzeb Jillani, an investigative reporter who works for the Urdu-language Dunya News TV channel, who is accused of "cyberterrorism" and making "defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan."

Jillani, who previously worked for the BBC and Deutsche Welle, is known for his critical reporting on Pakistan's army and intelligence services.

Reporters Without Borders condemned what it called the "trumped-up charges" against Jillani.

The Paris-based media watchdog said in a statement on April 16 that the case against Jillani has been designed to intimidate and silence Pakistan’s journalists.

Authorities have accelerated efforts to censor social-media platforms.

In the first half of 2018, Facebook restricted more content in Pakistan -- more than 2,000 posts -- than in any other country in the world, according to its figures. Facebook said the number was seven times higher than the previous six months.

Meanwhile, Twitter received requests from Pakistani authorities to remove content from more than 3,000 accounts, compared to under 700 in the second half of 2017, according to its figures.

Scores of Pakistani journalists and activists have received legal notices from Twitter on behalf of the government recently.

In January, journalist Mubashir Zaidi said he had received an e-mail from Twitter for a tweet about the unsolved killings of police officer Tahir Dawar and former lawmaker Ali Raza Abidi. Twitter notified him that his tweet was in violation of Pakistani law.

"We have identified many cases of censorship by social-media giants like Twitter and Facebook who willingly comply with Pakistani authorities’ demands," said Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders' Asia-Pacific desk. "We report these cases to our contact at Facebook and Twitter headquarters in California. After our intervention, sometimes the post is restored, sometimes it is not. We don’t get any explanation. This is one of the reasons why we call for Facebook and Twitter to be more transparent with this.

"The very fact that Pakistani journalists now have no other choice to move to social media to be able to express their views is a terrible sign of the dire state of free expression in Pakistan now," he added.

Unprecedented Pressure

Pakistan ranks 142nd out of 180 countries listed on the World Press Freedom Index 2019, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, dropping three places from 2017.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report released in September that the climate for press freedom in Pakistan was deteriorating as the country's army "quietly, but effectively" restricts reporting through "intimidation" and other means.

The report said journalists who push back or are overly critical of authorities are attacked, threatened, or arrested. CPJ also said the Pakistani military, intelligence, and military-affiliated political groups were suspected in the killings of 22 reporters over the past decade.

  • 16x9 Image

    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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    Daud Khattak

    Daud Khattak is the managing editor of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. He is based in Prague and reports on social, political, and security issues in Pakistan.