'Campaign of fear' drives Pakistan's journalists to self-censorship as pressure mounts ahead of General Election
With the Pakistan General Elections just a month away, journalists in Pakistan claim a 'campaign of fear' is being run 'against anyone criticising the establishment' especially the military
Rawalpindi: "Militant organisations, who call them non-state actors, are active," said former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in an interview to Dawn, one of the country’s oldest and leading English dailies. In the interview published on 12 May, the former prime minister went on to ask: "Should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me.”
India was quick to react, claiming the statement confirmed Pakistan government’s support to the terrorists who attacked Mumbai. The Pakistan government responded by disrupting Dawn's distribution in different parts of the country since 15 May, especially in Balochistan and the Sindh province, and to civilians living in military cantonments. The Press Council of Pakistan too issued a notice to Dawn for what it called "violating the ethical code of conduct". The PCP's action has raised concern at the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).
With the Pakistan general elections scheduled for 25 July, the action against Dawn has been described by Pakistan’s journalists as a "campaign of fear against anyone criticising the establishment". Apparently, the Pakistan military was particularly upset with the interview, including the part where Sharif asked "why can’t we complete the trials", referring to the many pending prosecutions of those accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Pakistan had responded to India’s statements as a “gross misinterpretation of Sharif’s comments".
The pressure against Dawn, in particular, and the Pakistani media, in general, has been mounting for some time. Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas in a recent tweet described the unannounced policy of "self-censorship" as "suffocating", though he refused to comment for this story. In fact, there has been no official response to the disruption of distribution of Dawn editions.
After the publication of the interview, on 4 June, Pakistan Army’s spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, accused a number of journalists of anti-state activities while presenting a slideshow featuring their social media accounts. “We do have the capability to monitor social media, to see who is doing what,” he said.
In response, the PFUJ issued a statement on 6 June, requesting the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of Pakistan's Armed Forces, “to withdraw its sweeping statements against journalists”.
However, two days later, PFUJ president Afzal Butt said that Major General Ghafoor's presentation mentioning the social media accounts of journalists was "not meant to target any individual or the journalist community”.
Many journalists mentioned in that presentation found Butt's clarification an abject surrender to the military. Butt and PFUJ secretary Ayub Jan Sarhandi did not respond to our request for a comment.
88 percent journalists self-censor stories
Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit based out of New York that promotes press freedom worldwide, said in a tweet that “displaying photos of journalists who allegedly are helping push anti-state propaganda is tantamount to painting a giant target on their backs".
Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s Asia associate, in response to an email request for comments, said, “Pakistan has long been a dangerous environment for journalists to work in, but this appears to be a particularly trying time for the press, as the country prepares for elections. If there is a climate of fear and the media isn’t able to do its job properly, Pakistan cannot ensure that its elections will be free and fair."
A number of journalists from leading broadcast and print publications that the writer spoke with allege an increase in trolling against those raising concerns about press freedom. One reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “We are forced to practice self-censorship. If we do not delete a tweet then our management will face the consequences.”
According to Media Matters for Democracy, a policy research initiative based in Islamabad, 88 percent of journalist’s in Pakistan self-censor their stories, especially on subjects relating to security and religion.
Major General Ghafoor held an undisclosed four-and-a-half-hour-long meeting with a select group of journalists on 8 June. A journalist who was present at the meeting, said, “Reporters were briefed on the slide presentation and asked whether that had impacted the safety of journalists mentioned. We were asked if we objected to the ISPR slides publicising the names of journalists. All the journalists present said the names should not have been published."
Major General Ghafoor apologised for the slides saying, "In hindsight, it wasn’t right, we are learning too," the journalist added.
Agencies keeping watch on scribes
The actions against Dawn and the incident at Geo TV — its journalist and social media activist Gul Bukhari was "abducted" for a few hours — indicate increasing pressure against free and fair reporting by journalists without fear of intimidation.
Bukhari was reportedly whisked away by unknown assailants on her way to Waqt News to appear on a show. The producer of the show said, “She was perhaps abducted by agencies. We know from our driver who was beaten up."
Bukhari was freed a few hours later and her experience was mentioned in the 8 June meeting between Ghafoor and the select group of journalists. The army spokesman did not elaborate on the subject, sticking to the official comment of supporting investigation of the abduction. However, in a lighter and more candid vein, the general did quip: “what good is an intelligence agency if it leaves traces behind.”
Amnesty International released a report last week urging authorities to end the crackdown on press freedom ahead of the 25 July elections. But Iftikhar said the challenges to this are manifold.
“The pervasive climate of threat that journalists face, some perpetuated by the Pakistan Army, means the country cannot make meaningful progress in improving the climate of press freedom,” she said.
Pakistan ranks 139 out of 180 countries in Reporters Sans Frontiers 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
(The author is a Rawalpindi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
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