How Pakistani media has come a full circle under Imran Khan

Censorship is back and violence against journalists has again become frequent.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
Article image

This is a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here. 

In July 2018, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan came to power in Islamabad. These polls are believed to be the most-manipulated elections in the country’s history. However, the signs of what was in store for the media had started becoming visible much before Khan assumed power—the government and the military had started issuing press advice to media houses on what and how to report.

Months before Imran Khan took oath as prime minister, there was a sense of media censorship in place. Examples of which can be seen in media’s coverage of two events. When former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had landed in Lahore from London in July, after he was convicted in a corruption case, a large gathering of his supporters was outside the airport to welcome him. The media completely blacked out the event. For instance, television channels were reporting from inside the passenger plane in which Sharif arrived from London, but was completely ignoring the crowd waiting outside the airport and in the city to greet him, thus in the process portraying him as a person who has been deserted by his home constituency.  Media also blacked out the rallies of Pushtun Tuhafuz Movement (PTM), or the Pashtun Protection Movement, in the North-Western part of the country.

Media censorship was also evident in the months immediately preceding the elections. During this time, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and the PTM had started raising their voices against the sitting government, as well as the military and its high handedness. While the Muslim League was complaining against the military’s manipulation of the political system, the PTM was raising its voice against military’s strong-arm tactics against common people in the country’s north-west. There was censorship on the media to not broadcast political events related to these political entities.

The new governing party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s track record in dealing with the media is not very attractive. While in opposition, its leaders had led an armed attack on Geo’s Islamabad office in 2017 for the channel’s alleged misreporting about PTI’s political strategy.

Major General Asif Ghafoor, military spokesman advised the media to report only positive things about the country. He said, on doing that one could “see how Pakistan will proceed forward on the path of development and progress”. What the spokesperson fails to understand is the media’s critical reportage is not an impediment in the country’s progress.

Officially there is no censorship. The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf government vows that it would ensure freedom of expression for journalists and the media. But behind the scene, the government and the military establishment exert pressure on media houses to not report anything that shows the military in a bad light.

After the attack on famous journalist Hamid Mir and subsequent reporting of the event on Geo TV, the military was not ready to let the things remain as usual for Geo. The military imposed a ban on Geo in the cantonment areas and the group’s newspapers were not allowed to be distributed in garrison cities. The “more loyal than the king” cable operators also threatened to boycott the television channel.

Denial of access to government functions and events to the leading journalists became a normal way of curbing their anti-military rhetoric of leading television anchors.

Journalists protest
The high-handed tactics of the government and the military have seen much resistance from the journalists’ community. Numerous journalists’ protests were staged in Islamabad. Some of the journalists, Taha Siddiqui most prominent among them, have fled the country and are continuing with their anti-military campaigns from various European countries.

“Today, we have a façade of democracy. The Constitution is intact, but behind the scenes, dark forces are using all means necessary to control journalism,” Nasir Zaidi, veteran journalist and trade unionist, said, while addressing a rally in Islamabad.

Two kinds of pressure on the media are discernible. First, the government and military pressurising the media owners by withdrawing subsidies while threatening with tax notices. Second, journalists are being harassed and intimidated through strong-arm tactics.

In the month of August, media house owners had two meetings one with the prime minister and the other with a military spokesman. In both these meetings, media house owners were told in clear terms that they should not accept any generous subsidies in the form of government advertisements. Secondly, they were told that any criticism of the military was totally unacceptable. Four senior journalists—Talat Hussein who was ousted from Geo, Matiullah Jan who was working with Waqt TV, Nusrat Javed, a senior anchor of Dawn TV and Murtaza Solangi of Capital TV—were dismissed from service– who were critical of the military and the Imran Khan government, lost their jobs in the days immediately following these meetings.

The pressure on the media is of a different kind: a case of high treason (a capital offence) was instituted against a senior journalist Cyril Almeida for an interview of Sharif, where he talks about cross-border terrorism and the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Months before Imran Khan came to power in Islamabad, Ahmed Noorani, a senior journalist, was severely beaten up by unidentified assailants in the city while he was on his way home from his office in the late hours of the night.

Noorani has written extensively on the military’s role in the probe into Sharif’s financial dealings, which led to his ouster from the prime minister’s office. He has also reported on the financial malpractices of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his party members. As a result, Noorani attracted the wrath of Khan’s supporters on social media. Some of Khan’s followers publicly advocated violence against Noorani.

In the months leading up to elections, four journalists were attacked in Islamabad by unidentified individuals. Journalist Taha Siddiqui, who has now fled the country, was attacked when 10 to 12 armed men stopped his private cab and severely beat him up. Siddiqui was “beaten [and] threatened with death,” journalist Asad Hashim said in a tweet. Hashim, who had accompanied Siddiqui to Koral police station, added that Siddiqui’s belongings were also taken. Siddiqui has accused the Pakistani military intelligence agencies of attacking him.

Pak media comes a full circle

The events related to media in Pakistan have completed a full circle now. Within three years of coming to power, the military government of General Pervez Musharraf allowed unprecedented freedom to electronic media in the country. In the following years, he gradually started taking away that freedom. As of 2018, with two civilian governments completing their tenure in office, the military and intelligence agencies have again started asserting themselves in a big way. Censorship is back and violence against journalists has again become more frequent. Freedom of expression promised by the civilian politicians has become a thing of the past; constitutional guarantees mean nothing.

Constitutional guarantees of press freedom have never meant much in Pakistan’s political context. However, military as a powerful player ensured freedom of the media during initial years of Musharraf’s rule as it thought that this would help in its regional struggle with much larger India. Secondly, the military also wanted the media’s help during its campaigns against militants and the Taliban in the tribal areas and Swat valley in 2009. Both these needs seem to have lost their values. In the regional as well as domestic context, the military has a sizeable presence of their cheerleader journalists, who are sufficiently anti-India and anti-militant to serve the military’s purpose.

The days of media as a watchdog in Pakistan are gone. Media in Pakistan will only serve as a “Fifth Generation Warfare” tool.


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like