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Pakistani cartoonist Khalid Hussain

A cartoonist in Pakistan says one of the country’s leading English-language dailies has told him to stop drawing for them following a controversy over his caricature of the country’s prime minister this week.

Khalid Hussain, 54, a professional cartoonist, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the management of The Nation newspaper informed him that they will not be printing his cartoons after a sketch of his depicting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan garnered angry reactions from senior government officials after being published on September 25.

“I don’t know how long they will not be printing my cartoons or whether they will ever print my cartoons [again],” he told Gandhara on September 27.

It was not immediately possible to reach The Nation’s management.

But in a September 26 statement to its readers, the paper apologized for Hussain’s cartoon. “The artwork fell short of our standards and does not reflect our editorial policy,” the statement said.

“We are proud to be a nationalistic paper, and we regret sincerely the attention taken by an artwork that was inappropriate, especially at the time of the UN General Assembly session taking place in New York,” the statement said adding that “necessary steps have been taken to ensure our internal procedures” without elaborating.

The firing highlights growing censorship and a clampdown on media. Rights activists in Pakistan and global media watchdogs have criticized Islamabad for pressuring the print and electronic media outlets to stop criticizing Khan's administration.

The controversy comes at a time when Islamabad is trying to draw international attention to alleged human rights abuses and restrictions in parts of the disputed region of Kashmir administered by neighboring India. Tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations have spiked since New Delhi revoked the special status for Kashmir on August 5.

Khan highlighted Kashmir in an address to the UNGA on September 27. His administration in Pakistan is keen on showcasing his weeklong visit to the United States as a diplomatic success amid tensions with India.

Khalid Hussain's controversial cartoon.
Khalid Hussain's controversial cartoon.

Hussain says that his cartoon, which depicted Khan chasing a “mediation” carrot dangled by U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they ride a cart pulled by Khan, was a comical take on a complex geopolitical situation.

“I didn’t aim to hit Imran Khan personally. But as the prime minister of the country, he symbolically represents the country he rules,” he said. “What I felt was that Trump has repeatedly assured Pakistan to mediate between India and Pakistan. But he later said that Modi has not agreed to [his mediation].”

The reality of U.S. diplomacy is more complex. Trump first offered to mediate between Islamabad and New Delhi during an Oval Office meeting with Khan in July. But New Delhi rejected the offer.

Since then, meetings between Trump and Modi have indicated that Washington considers New Delhi a strategic partner in South Asia.

Still the United States has demonstrated that it seeks reconciliation between the two South Asian nations. On September 25, Trump told journalists that he encouraged Khan and Modi to work out their differences. "I said, 'Fellas, work it out. Just work it out,'" he said. "Those are two nuclear countries. They've got to work it out.”

But Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s minister for human rights, declared the cartoon to be “offensive, over the top, and downright insulting.” She said that the “cartoonist, in his hate-filled mind, has also failed to understand that the situation on ground! Trump repeatedly wants to mediate, and Modi finds himself in uncertain terrain.”

Marzari later deleted the tweets because she complained to the wrong newspaper but wrote that her comments about the cartoon remain valid. “You can have your criticism of the prime minister, but some basic norms and decency and respect should be shown or does hatred overrule decent journalistic bounds,” she wrote in her original tweet.

Hussain, however, says he liked Khan when he highlighted the need for tackling corruption as Pakistan’s number one issue as an opposition leader before coming to power last year. “I was hoping that his government’s policies toward media will be tolerant, but what we are seeing is very disappointing for me,” he said.

Hussain relies on some $600 monthly salary to look after his wife and their three children. “I am a full-time professional cartoonist and don’t have any other source of income,” he noted.

Thousands of Pakistani journalists and media workers have lost their jobs over the last year. Censorship and declining revenues have forced television stations, magazines, and newspapers to shut down. Some journalists have turned to social media platforms to continue reporting and survive in uncertain times.

FILE: A Pakistani journalist protests curbs on free press.

Pakistani media advocates, human rights activists, and opposition politicians have strongly denounced the government's plan to set up special tribunals to deal with media-related cases, calling the move yet another attack on press freedom in the country.

The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) said on September 18 that the decision marked a "black day" for the Pakistani media, while the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) urged the government to "refrain from pressurizing the media further."

The statements come after Prime Minister Imran Khan's cabinet earlier this week approved a plan to establish "media courts" to process cases faster and ensure fair trials, according to Khan's special assistant for information and broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan.

Media-related cases are currently being dealt by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) and the Press Council of Pakistan.

Provided the bill is approved by parliament, such cases would in the future be referred to media tribunals, which will be overseen by higher courts, Awan said.

"The whole process will be a true reflection of laws and high democratic values," she tweeted on September 17, insisting that journalists could also take complaints about the government to the media courts.

However, APNS President Hameed Haroon and Secretary-General Sarmad Ali said in a statementthat the special courts "aimed at intimidating and strangulating the media and freedom of expression."

Such courts are "not only unconstitutional but also contrary to the spirit of democracy," they also said, adding that the APNS intends to fight against the measure in parliament and the judiciary.

HRCP said that "given the government's woeful record on press freedoms, HRCP urges it to refrain from pressurizing the media further."

"How are tribunals expected to maintain the media's independence?" the nongovernmental watchdog asked in a tweet.

The opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) vowed to oppose the government’s plans in parliament, with Senator Raza Rabbani saying: "The establishment of media courts is another way to threaten and pressurize the media."

PPP leader Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said his party "will certainly not support any move to gag media," adding: "The bill will die in the parliament as [opposition parties] enjoy majority in the Senate."

Pakistan's successive governments and the powerful military has been accused for years of censoring the media.

Media freedom and human rights watchdogs have complained of growing pressure on broadcasters and newspapers to avoid covering critics of Khan's administration.

In July, Pakistani journalists demonstrated to denounce what the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists described as "unprecedented censorship” by the military and security services.

Authorities were also criticized for their decision to suspend several TV news channels from a cable network after they had broadcast a news conference by an opposition politician.

Khan, who took office in 2018, has denied censoring media.

The country is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

With reporting by Reuters and Dawn

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