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Press Freedom

Opinion: The decline of media freedom in Pakistan

Shahzeb Jillani
December 10, 2019

The last two years have seen a rapid decline in media freedom in Pakistan. Senior journalists say the national media is witnessing one of the darkest periods in decades, writes DW's Shahzeb Jilani.

DW Urdu Blogger - Shahzeb Ali Shah Jilani
Image: privat

The media situation in Pakistan deteriorated in the context of the controversial election in 2018. The poll was widely seen as having been manipulated by the army to help bring a weak civilian government to power, headed by the Prime Minister Imran Khan.

When parts of the media cried foul, the security and intelligence machinery sought to silence them. Journalists critical of the army's interference in politics were told to fall in line or risk losing their jobs. Many prominent TV personalities did fall in line, some enthusiastically, others begrudgingly. Those who couldn't, were fired or called it a day.

The purge has seen many senior journalists being removed from the country's mainstream media, including Najam Sethi, Nusrat Javed, Murtaza Solangi among others.

Earlier this year, it was my turn to experience it first hand. It started as scurrilous trolling on Twitter and became intense and the threats more specific. I could tell it was orchestrated as most of the accounts attacking my work had a picture of the Pakistani flag, a numeric Twitter handle with hardly any followers.

Symbolbild Pressefreiheit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Investigations by Pakistan's digital journalist Ramsha Jahangir have since established that the so-called "cyber warriors" targeting journalists are invariably linked to the prime minister's party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the Pakistani army's public relations department, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). These self-described "patriots" take great pride in orchestrating false social media campaigns to abuse and defame critics of the government. 

Prime Minister Khan and his military mentors aren't particularly fond of western democratic values

Authoritarian regimes around the world spend way more time and resources on suppressing dissent than on the welfare and prosperity of their people. Pakistan is no different. The Prime Minister Imran Khan and his military mentors aren't particularly fond of western democratic values. Instead, they draw inspiration from countries like China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Khan has, on more than one occasion, expressed his desire that like China, if he could only put hundreds of his corrupt opponents in jail, he could turn Pakistan into an economic giant. The only problem is: many of his main opponents are already in jail or facing corruption cases but his military-backed government still appears dysfunctional and directionless.

Imran Khan Pakistan Premierminister
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran KhanImage: picture-alliance/AA/Iranian Presidency

I was aware that if they decided to come after me, Dunya News, the television channel where I worked wouldn’t be able to stand up for me. Feeling weary of growing self-censorship, in March 2019 I decided to resign and informed my employer that I would be leaving at the end of the month.

But it was too late. By then, rogue elements in Pakistan's intelligence machinery had ordered the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to file a case of cyber terrorism and defamation against me. The case was registered under the controversial Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 14 years.

As expected, my channel turned its back on me

I was accused of "spreading hatred" and "causing panic" in society by criticizing Pakistan's "sacred institutions". The complaint cited some tweets and a TV report I had produced on the sacking of a prime minister in the 1980s by the then military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. 

The charges were ridiculous, but had to be taken seriously. As expected, my channel turned its back on me. It soon became clear that I was on my own. Surprisingly, support came from people I did not know and had not met until then. These included lawyers willing to take my case pro-bono, activists offering to guide me through the misuse of Pakistan's cybercrime law, enraged fellow journalists and rights groups such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Over the next several weeks, I would make about a dozen or so court appearances. As a defendant out on bail, I had to be on time at every hearing, but the prosecution would often fail to show up. I was told that this could drag on for months, perhaps even years.

Journalisten protestieren in Pakistan Pressefreiheit Zensur
Journalists protest in Pakistan for press freedom Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Arbab

While I was busy defending myself in court, my employer Dunya News sacked me. As with other journalists, the official letter cited a financial crunch as the reason for the sudden dismissal. Privately, I was informed that the 'pressure' from 'security officials' had became unbearable.

The case against me was finally thrown out by court. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have survived an insidious law aimed at silencing journalists. Many other Pakistani citizens and journalists who have gone through far worse experiences than I, have not been so lucky. Some like Taha Siddiqi and Gul Bukhari were abducted and endured psychological trauma, allegedly at the hands of Pakistani intelligence agents. They were later released and have since left the country.

At the end of 2019, large parts of Pakistan's mainstream media are faced with the twin challenges of a tight financial squeeze and a crisis of credibility –largely thanks to a government that is hostile to a free media. The list of public interest stories that news outlets are not allowed to report on has grown while the space for discussing the core of Pakistan's problems has shrunk. Be it editorial decision making or hiring and firing of talent, media bosses feel obligated to submit to the diktats of the country's most powerful institution or risk retribution.

A notable exception has been Dawn, Pakistan's leading English language newspaper established by the country's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

In recent years, it has been a recurring target of state-sponsored vilification campaigns. The paper's circulation has been banned in military controlled areas and its advertisements repeatedly blocked. Last year, it's star columnist Cyril Almeida was hounded as "a traitor" and faced treason charges for an interview he did with the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Shady characters in the media, in politics and the court system; but also incredible, selfless and courageous people

Cyril Almeida
Pakistani journalist Cyril AlmeidaImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

Earlier this month, crowds of angry protesters called for the newspaper to be shut down. They objected to a news headline on the recent knife attack on the London Bridge, which made a reference to the attacker's Pakistani background. Introducing themselves as "defenders of Islam and Pakistan," the crowd shouted slogans in front of Dawn's Islamabad office praising the Pakistani army and its main intelligence agency, the ISI.

It later transpired that many of the protesters were in fact government employees. And the demonstration was orchestrated in retaliation to a speech in the U.S. last month by editor of Dawn, Zaffar Abbas, the recipient of the 2019 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Speaking at the award ceremony, Mr Abbas had detailed the pressures he and his newspaper have faced from Pakistan's security establishment. "Surrender is not journalism, reporting the truth is," he told the gathering defiantly.

Like any country, Pakistan has lots of shady characters in the media, in politics and in the court system; but the country also has some really incredible, selfless and courageous people. These people are not daunted by threats and intimidation. 

Every day, away from the propaganda machinery, they are fighting for a country where citizens' fundamental rights are respected and protected. Pakistan's hope lies with them and the incredible work they do, often at great personal risk.