Say no more: Press freedom tracing nadir under current regime
Pakistan has never been one for absolute freedom of the press, nor can it be. As an Islamic Republic, the South Asian country is compelled by Islamic injunctions to impose at least some kind of restrictions on speech and other forms of expression, such as the pictorial depiction of many religious figures. However, in a country that has historically been controlled by non-state forces to variable degrees throughout its brief history, Pakistan has more than just religious injunctions controlling its speech.
The current regime has received a significant amount of flak for controlling its media to an unprecedented level, however, things have never, historically, looked very good for the developing nation. Among a plethora of things, the Zia regime (1977-1988) was particularly notorious for its repression of the press and persecution of journalists. A report from June 1978 suggests that General Zia likened the press to a ‘bird just out of a cage – not having used its muscles and feathers for long, it was finding it difficult to fly and would take time to adjust.’ Under this pretext, Zia had, until then – only a year into his martial law regime – arrested as many as 120 newspaper employees, had them tried before military courts, which handed them sentences of anything between six months to one year of rigorous imprisonment together with fines.
Zia’s particular focus was on Pakistan People’s Party’s daily, Musawat, which was published from Lahore, closing it down altogether, citing ‘highly irresponsible behaviour’. To protest Zia’s crackdown on Musawat, journalists hailing from various cities got together in the office of the publication and staged hunger strikes. It was against such ‘problematic’ journalists in particular that Zia took action, whom he had previously threatened to ‘hang upside down’ – setting an undesirable precedent for many regimes to come, including the current.
While the departure of Zia helped journalists breathe a better sigh of relief, however, the country’s press still could not be termed exactly ‘free’.
In 2010, over two decades after Zia’s rule had subsided, Pakistan was ranked at 134 out of 196 countries – with 1 being the freest – by Freedom House in its 2010 Freedom of Press Survey, giving it a score of 61 out of 100, with 1 being the best score and 100 being the worst – ruling it ‘not free’. It is pertinent to mention that in 2010, the ruling party was Pakistan People’s Party, itself, whose government took over the reins of the country in 2008 after a decade of military rule under General Pervez Musharraf, during which, ironically, the press was believed to enjoy relative freedom.
Therefore, when it is said the current regime is a dark age for the Pakistani press, that is saying quite a lot for a country that has never even known true press freedom to begin with. What must, then, the incumbent Pakistani Tehreek-i-Insaf government, led by cricket-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician, Imran Khan, possibly be doing to earn such a bad rap – internationally – for its treatment of the press?
To put things into perspective, in 2021, Pakistan was ranked at 145, with a score of 46.86, in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index for 2021, with neighboring India being ranked just 3 places above at 142. The current regime, from the year of its inception, has frequently been criticized for imposing a ‘total blackout’ on certain kinds of information. From the onset, under the PTI, journalists in Pakistan face begun facing articles being censored, funding being cancelled, and channels shut down for any form of dissent.
Veteran Pakistani talk show host, Talat Hussain, paints the picture of the severity of the censorship prevalent in the country in the following words: “My programmes were being repeatedly censored. I was told that any suggestion that the 2018 elections were rigged or that the army was part of the running of the government by Imran Khan was unacceptable.”
In the years following the publication of that report, matters have not gotten any better for the media in Pakistan. Only recently, the family of Ahmad Noorani – a prominent investigative journalist who founded the dissenting, fact-based digital news media organization, Fact Focus – was attacked in Lahore while traveling in a car. The windscreen of the automobile was pounded upon by an unknown assailant, however, Noorani’s wife and Nawa-i-Waqt’s journalist, Ambreen Fatima, and their children luckily survived the attack, physically unscathed. Just before the attack Noorani had published a report based on an audio clip stated to belong to former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, in which he can be heard ordering the imprisonment of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leadership since the army wanted to bring Imran Khan’s PTI into power. Condemning the attack, it was generally believed that it was the report that instigated the assault on Noorani’s family.
PTI’s government has been alleged to use various tactics of controlling and regulating the country’s media, including the disruption of the distribution of newspapers, handing out threats of withdrawal of advertisements to media outlets – and the execution of this threat – and the initiation of targeted harassment campaigns against ‘rebelling’ journalists.
Khan’s government has also used tools such as the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (RBUOC) rules – widely regarded as ‘draconian’ – which gave the country’s internet regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) the ‘authority’ – pun unintended – to censor a wide range of variously interpretable content that, among other things, violated ‘the glory of Islam’, ‘integrity, security and defence of Pakistan’, ‘public order’ or ‘decency and morality’.
To further tighten its grip around the press, the government also plans to introduce a new media regulatory body called the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) which would be formed by merging several already-existing media regulatory bodies, a move that is strongly opposed by Pakistani journalists, leading the president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) to call it ‘censorship by another name’. The new regulatory body is expected to further intensify the regulation of digital media.
It is moves like this that compels Reporters Without Borders to term the current regime ‘under the military establishment’s thumb’ and to include Imran Khan in its list of 37 worst rulers for press freedom. Although the country’s premier rejected the RSF’s report, it is hard even for him to deny that his regime has given little room for the country’s journalists to breathe – a move that has rightly earned him worldwide criticism. However, given Khan’s evident tolerance for the far-right, his fascist decision-making should surprise no one.
Tags: Press freedom, censorship, media, PMDA