‘Everybody is scared’: Pakistani media fighting — and losing — battle with ‘extreme’ censorship
By Daud Khattak and Frud Bezhan-Military rule, religious extremism, and war have long made Pakistan one of the world’s toughest beats for journalists.
But Pakistani reporters say free media is now being shackled like never before, as veteran reporters have been leaving after experiencing threats, the nation’s most popular TV station was forced off the air, and nationwide distribution of Pakistan’s oldest newspaper has been halted.
The developments are threatening the independence of the already depleted ranks of free-press torchbearers, who have come under pressure from the all-powerful army, hard-line religious groups, and militant groups.
Prominent Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui left Pakistan in January, shortly after armed men beat, threatened, and attempted to kidnap him in broad daylight as he took a taxi to the airport in the capital, Islamabad.
“The army and intelligence agencies were threatening me and I suspect the people who tried to kidnap me were from the army,” says Siddiqui, speaking to RFE/RL from Paris, where he has relocated. “They do not like investigative reporting that uncovers the wrongdoings of those institutions.”
A well-known reporter, the 33-year-old’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and other Western media outlets. In 2014, he was awarded the Albert Londres Prize, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for his coverage of Pakistan.
Siddiqui is known in his homeland for his critical reporting on the military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs in the South Asian country.
The Islamabad bureau chief for India’s World Is One News channel, Siddiqui says he was questioned and warned by the army after a 2015 article he wrote for The New York Times about torture and abuse at army-run detention centers. He followed that up with another critical story about the army confiscating land from farmers for a military-owned housing scheme.
He says he was warned by intelligence officers that he was “writing against the country’s interests and we will make a fake drugs case against you.”
The Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence services have long been accused of stifling independent media and silencing opposition through intimidation, censorship, and even assassination.
Pakistani media have come under unprecedented pressure in recent months.
Since May 15, the distribution of the country’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, has been disrupted across most of the country. The disruption came days after Dawn published an interview with ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which the former premier criticized the army and alleged it was backing militants who carried out the deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.
On April 1, Geo TV, part of Pakistan’s largest commercial media group, Jang, was taken off the air in many parts of the country. The ban only ended a month later after talks between the military and the network’s chiefs, who reportedly pledged to make sure the network’s coverage does not cross the military’s line.
Meanwhile, prominent Pakistani columnists have had articles rejected by news outlets. Pakistani journalist Syed Talat Hussain wrote on Twitter on May 28 that his regular column was rejected for its content.
Pakistani writers have also seen the quashing of articles that cover antigovernment protests by the Pashtun ethnic minority, toward which the army has been accused of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and discrimination. Journalist Mosharraf Zaidi said on April 17 that his story about the Pashtun Protection Movement was rejected.
Some journalists have resorted to self-censorship to keep their jobs and remain safe.
“Everyone is exercising self-censorship and even I was doing the same,” says Siddiqui. “Only those media and journalists who toe the line or observe self-censorship can survive and continue their professional work without threat.”
Pakistan ranks 139th out of 180 countries listed on the World Press Freedom Index 2017, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, and threats to journalists are growing.
Raza Rumi, a TV anchor and respected reporter, narrowly escaped death when gunmen opened fire on his car in an attack that killed his driver in March 2014.
He is an outspoken critic of militant groups in Pakistan and the army’s alleged support for militant groups in neighboring India and Afghanistan.
Shortly after the assassination attempt, Rumi moved to the United States, where he has continued his career as an editor for Pakistan’s Daily Times.
“There is an extreme level of censorship being applied to media,” says Rumi, who is based in New York. “There are no formal directives, but everybody has seen the fate of two major media outlets, Geo and Dawn, and everybody is scared of crossing the line.”
Rumi is planning to visit Pakistan again for the first time since the attack on his life. But he insists he cannot work as a reporter in Pakistan in the current climate.
“I’m scared and do not feel very comfortable,” he says. “The killers of my driver have been detained but not punished yet.”
Fear of retribution even haunts journalists who have fled Pakistan.
Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist and assistant editor at Dawn, was barred from leaving the country in 2016 shortly after he wrote an article about a rift between the government and the military. He left for New York when the government order was lifted weeks later.
Daud Khattak is a senior editor for RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region.