Pakistan’s New Media Crackdown Threatens Press Freedom

The army and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency want to eradicate any criticism.

When men identifying themselves as agents of Pakistan’s powerful secret service burst into Asad Ali Toor’s home last year, they pistol-whipped him, bound and gagged him with his own shirts, and forced him to chant slogans including “Long live Pakistan,” “Death to India,” and “Death to Israel.”

Toor, a 38-year-old journalist, says one of his attackers held a gun to his head and told him he was a dead man unless he stopped reporting on Pakistan’s army and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency. He believes he wasn’t killed only because his gag came loose and he shouted for help. The noise he made prompted his attackers to run, he said, and neighbors came to his aid.

“I was injured,” Toor said. “But the biggest casualty was democracy.”

Soon after, he was fired from his job as a current affairs producer with a private TV network, he believes due to government pressure. He migrated to YouTube, where his channel, Asad Toor Uncensored, now has tens of thousands of followers. But his days there could also be numbered.

Pakistan’s government is tightening its control of media with laws and oversight bodies that critics say enhance its power to censor and punish journalists. New laws potentially extend control to social media such as YouTube and Twitter, snuffing out investigative journalism and critical commentary.

The army and the ISI are the principal drivers of this crackdown, seeking to eradicate any criticism of their heavy-handed power grab over state institutions, as well as of military involvement in a wide range of licit and illicit businesses, including property and drugs. The crackdown on media further enables the army’s reach, which already stretches to the administrative and judicial strands of civilian authority, undermining democratic institutions such as Parliament and the courts.

And it’s happening with the tacit support of Prime Minister Imran Khan, sources say. Khan, a former international cricketer with a playboy reputation, has long had deep antipathy for the media and rarely voices support for journalists who are attacked or disappeared for their work.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), a professional association representing the country’s 20,000 journalists, is challenging one such law, the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021, which the union’s lawyer, Babar Hayat Samore, said enables the prosecution of journalists “if news is not given in good faith.”

Ironically, given the law’s grand title and the implication that its purpose is to safeguard the defenders of democracy and those who hold power to account, Chief Justice Athar Minallah said the law could make it easier for the state to prosecute journalists.

In the Islamabad High Court on Feb. 9, the opening day of the case, he gave the government a month to prove that the new law does not restrict freedom of expression.

The case comes after the government last year shelved plans, in the face of widespread protests, to consolidate a number of media regulatory bodies and set up the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PDMA) while expanding control of digital and social media. The move was seen as an attempt to further undermine constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.

Human Rights Watch, in a report when the PMDA was proposed, said it would grant the government “new unchecked powers” by establishing “‘media tribunals’ that will have the power to impose steep fines for media organizations and journalists who violate its code of conduct or publish content it deems to be ‘fake news.’ The proposed law would also increase government control by allowing government officials to be appointed to key positions.”

“It is a long war, a battle for freedom of media, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression,” said Shahzada Zulfiqar, the PFUJ’s president. “The PFUJ is fighting not only for the media but for these freedoms for every citizen of Pakistan.”

Pakistan is among the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that tracks press freedom around the world, says 63 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992. Most of them were Pakistani; the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded by extremists in Karachi in February 2002.

Pakistani journalists say the country’s “hybrid” civilian-military establishment is behind many of the recent attacks on journalists and has effectively silenced coverage that does not portray the army and the ISI in a positive light. Without a free media, they say, Pakistan’s democracy is being driven toward military dictatorship.

Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based journalist who has written several books on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, says the army is now the dominant force in Pakistani politics.

“Essentially, the military takes all the major decisions on security, terrorism, foreign relations, the economy, what can be debated, what can’t—on almost everything,” Rashid said. “The role of the military is much more important than the role of the civilian government. We do have a hybrid system, which is tilted very much in favor of the military. And controlling media is something they have been wanting to do for a long time.”

“You’re having forced resignations from both TV channels and the print media. There’s no investigative journalism—people are too scared to do it. Journalists have been beaten up, tortured, shot. We have one of the highest rates of deaths of journalists in the world,” added Rashid, who sits on the CPJ board.

Any criticism of Khan or pivotal policies such as the multibillion-dollar, debt-driven China-Pakistan Economic Corridor development program is assumed by those with a keen eye on Pakistan’s media to have the army’s approval, as the ISI’s public relations wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), tends to chastise journalists and editors—often via WhatsApp messages, many said—for overstepping red lines on acceptable reporting.

Defiant journalists like Toor can also find themselves fighting dubious charges filed in far-flung courts that they must attend daily, often for months on end, spending huge sums on lawyers that they never recoup.

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the editor in chief of the Karachi-based Jang group of newspapers and Geo TV, spent eight months in custody ahead of a trial revolving around a property transaction dating back to 1986. On Jan. 31, a Lahore judge dropped all charges, saying there was no evidence any crime had been committed.

Rashid and other news veterans say media owners are cowed by threats to pull government advertising, pretty much their only source of income amid the country’s poor economic performance. Despite optimistic official growth projections, Pakistan is still struggling to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inflation is officially 13 percent, unemployment at 6.9 percent, and international lending institutions are demanding tighter controls on spending. Nevertheless, military spending increased by 6.2 percent in the 2021-22 budget—but that, too, is a “no-go area” for reporting, said Imtiaz Alam, who until 2018 was a regular commentator for Pakistani television and newspapers.

“You cannot talk about the military or security forces. You cannot talk about ISI, military spending, or about anything happening in the security sphere,” he said. “You cannot talk about where army or military operations are going on. There is no access, for example, to tribal areas, Balochistan, especially southern Balochistan, wherever military operations against terrorists or against nationalists are taking place.”

Media, Alam said, are prohibited from reporting “independently and freely—there is blanket censorship.” Meanwhile, independent pundits have been replaced by so-called experts approved by the ISPR for appearances on primetime television.

Alam founded the South Asian Free Media Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping journalists make contacts, maintaining professional standards, and providing media training. But he says the government has banned him from accepting funds from foreign sources in an effort to strangle the organization and intimidate journalists. Formerly a high-profile writer and commentator, Alam now rattles around his Lahore office with no staff and little to do.

International media watchdogs also lack access to Pakistan; CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, Steven Butler, was denied entry in 2019.

Journalists who find outlets abroad to publish their work and provide income are branded foreign agents intent on the destruction of the Pakistani state. Toor said his assailants saw shoes in his closet that were manufactured abroad and decided that was proof he was a “foreign spy.”

Asma Shirazi anchors a political affairs show on the private Aaj TV in Pakistan. She has been harassed, trolled, and had her home broken into twice—including once when she, her husband, and two young children were home. She has no doubt the government would like her silenced.

“Our society is a democratic society, and people do realize why these journalists are not on air, are not speaking, why their voices are not being heard,” she said. “These critical voices are a blessing in democracies. But now that they are not there, there is a huge gap. And people know this, they see this, and they know why it is.”

Self-censorship by journalists is an insidious consequence of the harassment, she said. “But we have been here before. We know how to deal with it—we keep fighting.”

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