Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: AFP/ PTI
An aide to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been accused of hiding a family business empire overseas. Photo: AFP / PTI

As the global media watched and covered the election in Pakistan, local journalists were denied entry to several polling stations despite having accreditation issued by the national Election Commission.

“We have orders from the top not to allow media people at the polling station,” an army officer deployed at Mohni Road in Lahore said. Similarly, reporters were not allowed to enter polling stations in Lahore Cantonment. “Without a permission letter from Inter Services Public Relations [the military’s media arm], media people are not allowed to enter the Cantt area,” an army official deployed at an entry point in Lahore said.

Earlier, a senior journalist and correspondent for the Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt, Matiullah Jan was targeted after he was critical of the military and judiciary. Matiullah believes he was attacked by “vested interests” hurt by his journalism and social media activism. This is the second time he has been targeted. “To gag a journalist is to gag a society,” he remarked.

These are just a few examples of how journalists were gagged or intimidated ahead of an unprecedented general election. In fact, some of the country’s influential media houses and their staff reporters were systematically targeted. The military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor even said at a press conference that a number of journalists including Matiullah were “anti-state” and “anti-military”.

“Those are serious allegations in Pakistan, where the military has ruled, directly or indirectly, for most of the country’s history, and where rights groups say it is waging an unprecedented campaign of intimidation ahead of next month’s elections”, Pakistan Today reported on June 26.

Major media outlets targeted

The Pakistan Army particularly targeted the country’s three leading media outlets — Dawn Group, Geo News and Jang Group — who were coerced to drop some columnists and purge certain stories. While Jang, the leading Urdu daily in Pakistan, was not allowed to deliver in the cantonment areas, the country’s largest English newspaper Dawn was more systematically targeted. It had recently published an editorial recounting a continued onslaught in a “wide-ranging and seemingly coordinated manner”.

Significantly, Dawn‘s allegations were corroborated by the latest findings of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. It castigated the “systematic curtailment of freedom of expression in the form of press advice, intimidation and harassment”, reportedly perpetrated by state or intelligence agencies, which has left many journalists and their bosses too vulnerable to resist.

Another non-profit organization that has taken serious note of the press intimidation in Pakistan is the Committee to Protect Journalists. It has documented how journalists who wrote critical pieces about the military or judiciary were harassed, abducted or attacked.

Human rights groups in Pakistan have been more perturbed by the judiciary’s indifference towards the media being muzzled. The Committee to Protect Journalists quoted Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission saying: “When it comes to the military and the judiciary, Pakistan’s journalists are between a rock and a hard place.” She said that “in recent months the judiciary, which has a history of siding with Pakistan’s powerful military, has remained largely silent amid attempts to censor or silence the press.”

While the Pakistan Army coerced local English and Urdu media outlets to submit to Imran Khan, scores of media people were harassed. The popular news channel Geo TV, part of the Jang group, went off the air for two weeks in an apparent protest against interference, only to re-emerge with a promise to self-censor.

Social media outlets also hounded

It was not only the mainstream media – social media platforms were also hounded by the army, while pro-democracy activists and bloggers were abducted.

The Human Rights Commission also noted the increase in official advice or warnings to social media users, particularly those critical of state policies.

Its report said: “Any criticism of the policies of the military or discussion about extremist violence attracts the most press advice. Respondents testified to receiving advice from the Inter-Services Public Relations and from civil agencies such as the Federal Investigation Agency, which, they allege, has begun to call social-media users for ‘hearings’ related to their online activity, albeit with no supporting official orders. It is not uncommon to receive direct requests to delete specific tweets and, in one respondent’s case, to be asked to report ‘objectionable’ tweets.”

A Pakistani-American columnist who analyzed the effect of this media muzzling, suggested that the Pakistani media was coerced into self-censorship and a large section of the print and electronic media ended up heaping high praise on the army and its blue-eyed boy Imran Khan.

However, not all Pakistani media outlets were fearful. A few papers like The News, put out by the Jang group, published critiques of the election process. It questioned the credibility of the electoral conduct: “Predictions that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would be the largest party and there would be a hung parliament have largely proven correct… The one question hanging over the elections is whether they were conducted fairly”.

The News was censored and pressured not to carry such pieces. It was also told not to publish two popular columnists — Babar Sattar and Mosharaf Zaidi — as they had written about a protest movement led by thousands of ethnic Pashtuns from tribal areas against military operations.

Media intimidation nothing new

If we trace the evolution and operation of the press in the context of growing political instability in Pakistan, the current media muzzling is nothing new for the country.

Over the past year, media critics of the military have found themselves abducted, taken off air and threatened. But now the Pakistan Army seems more cautious about what is being published or aired. What remains to be seen is how the fourth pillar of democracy will function in the ‘new Pakistan’ of Imran Khan.

Analysts and close observers of the Pakistani media had believed that the country was on a path, albeit slow and bumpy, towards greater press freedom. But with the ratcheting up of pressure on media owners and selective attacks on journalists, people are uncertain what the future holds.

One can only wait and see how the media will fare under the new government led by a cricket-hero-turned-politician now seen as the army’s preferred choice.

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