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Tuesday 24 April 2018

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Pakistani media mostly stayed away from covering a large Pashtun Tahafuz Movement gathering in Peshawar on April 8.

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.

PAKISTAN -- Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa arrives to attend the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad, March 23, 201

Pakistani media outlets and journalists often face consequences for refusing to toe the line of the country’s all-powerful military.

The Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence services have long been accused of stifling the independent media and silencing opposition through intimidation, censorship, and even assassination.

Now observers say Pakistan’s popular Geo TV is being punished for its tug-of-war with the military. Geo TV, part of Pakistan's largest commercial media group, Jang, was taken off the air in many parts of the country on April 1, with media watchdogs and journalists claiming foul play.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) and the Islamabad government have insisted they were not behind the suspension of the channel. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said he launched an investigation on April 3, but the perpetrators have still not been found or named.

With no claim of responsibility, many suspect the military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs in the South Asian country.

"There’s no doubt that the military is behind the blackout," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military analyst and author.

Last month, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa held an off-the-record briefing with a group of journalists in Rawalpindi that was widely reported. Bajwa described Geo TV as "subversive" and warned the channel that it would face consequences for crossing "red lines" by challenging the military, several reporters with knowledge about what was discussed during the briefing told RFE/RL. The military has rejected this account of events.

"The military doesn’t want any channel to report about anything that is against [its] interests, certainly not in its ongoing political battle," says Siddiqa. "Geo TV is one of the few Pakistani media outlets that are ready to provide an alternative perspective."

The Pakistani military did not respond to a request for comment.

Tug-Of-War

Geo TV and the military have been at odds since 2014, when Geo TV anchor and journalist Hamid Mir was shot in the port city of Karachi. Mir accused the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency of ordering the assassination attempt. Geo TV publicly backed Mir’s claims, while the military denied any involvement.

Recently, Geo TV has refused to follow the military's line on the corruption case against ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is embroiled in an ongoing war of words with the military. The Supreme Court in July 2017 disqualified Sharif from office due to corruption charges, which he has refuted. Sharif blamed "hidden hands" for his ousting, an apparent reference to the military.

Allies of the three-time prime minister, who was toppled in a military coup in 1999, have called the case a political vendetta and suggested the military might be behind it.

Pakistani journalists say Geo TV has been of the few outlets in Pakistan that has reported independently on the corruption case and given the side of the Sharif family.

"The establishment wants to scuttle any dissent covered by the media, especially to prevent the voice of Nawaz Sharif from reaching the public," says Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist and human rights activist. "It is important ahead of elections in order to get the public opinion manipulated through other, more obedient media outlets."

Geo TV anchors and senior journalists have also taken a stance against the rolling back of the 18th amendment, which in 2010 decentralized power in Pakistan and brought about a parliamentary system, reversing many changes made by military rulers to the constitution over the last few decades.

"This is not just about Nawaz Sharif, but also about dissent over rolling back the 18th amendment, too," says Sirmed, who claims the military wants to roll back the constitutional amendment "because it is affecting the establishment’s ability to manipulate policy" and its "control on resources."

Bajwa, in his off-the-record briefing with journalists, was quoted widely as saying that the 18th amendment was "more dangerous than Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s six points."

Rehman was the founding father of Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan after a devastating war in 1971. His six points were a demand for greater autonomy five years before the Bengali war of independence erupted.

The Pakistani military has said Bajwa's comments were taken out of context and that the military was not opposed to the 18th amendment.

‘Too Frightened’

Geo TV’s suspension has outraged many Pakistani journalists and media activists who have called it a blatant suppression of press freedom.

Pakistani columnist and analyst Imtiaz Alam has called the suspension of Geo TV an example of "blatant suppression of freedom of press and freedom of expression and people’s right to know."

"Time and again it has been proven that a ban is counterproductive, whether it [is] on a party, person, or on media," Pakistani journalist Mazhar Abbas tweeted on April 1. "Yet we have a habit of repeating the same mistakes time and again..."

A statement on Geo TV's website says that "Pakistan's constitution and law[s] guarantee the fundamental right of access to information to the citizens of Pakistan."

"The arbitrary suspension of Geo TV on cable TV is a direct assault on Pakistan's constitutionally guaranteed right to access information," says Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee To Protect Journalists. "It's outrageous that authorities are either unable to find or too frightened to name those powerful enough to orchestrate the blocking of news distribution."

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