‘Extreme fear and self-censorship’: media freedom under threat in Pakistan
Journalists face blanked-out articles, pulled funding and channel shutdown if they dare to criticise the state
For almost five years, Talat Hussain, a well-known Pakistani journalist, hosted a popular current affairs talk show on Geo TV, openly discussing the political issues of the day. But last year all that changed. Forced to comply with a total blackout of news that criticised the military or the government of the new prime minister, Imran Khan, Hussain found himself unable to speak freely.
My programmes were being repeatedly censored, said Hussain. 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.
While Pakistan has a turbulent relationship with media freedom, under Imran Khan, elected as prime minister last year with strong backing from the military, censorship is felt heavier than ever before.
Journalists, activists, authors and politicians spoke to the Guardian of a climate of extreme fear and self-censorship, and the suppression of opposition political voices, even worse than during the military dictatorship of General Zia, who oppressively ruled Pakistan between 1977 and 1988.
I was told by Geo News administration that they could not air my analysis because the army, represented by ISPR [the media wing of the Pakistan armed forces], was very unhappy and they would shut down channel transmission if I continued to speak like I did, which they said was financially ruinous for them, said Hussain.
In the end they used the ruse of downsizing and asked me to reduce my team and their salaries, which I refused and left.
Hussains account of direct involvement by the military and political authorities in censoring stories critical to the government was repeated by half a dozen journalists. The pressure was reportedly exerted both through direct edicts to editors and producers, to less direct but more costly interventions such as pulling TV stations from transmission, targeting advertising revenue of dissenting media or pulling newspapers from circulation.
In many cases, the trend towards heavy censorship pre-dates Khans premiership, but he has been criticised for allowing it to continue, if not ramping it up. In 2017, Mohammed Hanif, a celebrated Pakistani novelist and satirist, was surprised to open the New York Times to find his article, titled Pakistans Triangle of Hate: Taliban, Army and India, had been removed and there was nothing but an empty page.