‘This is a democratic facade. There is no freedom of the press’
Journalists in Pakistan struggle with overt message control and covert self-censorship
Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui: in January, he escaped an abduction attempt which he says was triggered by his criticisms of the military and fled to Paris with his family. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty
The garden of Islamabad Press Club in Pakistan is a sanctuary. With the Margalla Hills in the background and lush green trees lining winding, coloured paths, there is something playful about it. Mismatched chairs are scattered around, relics of creative conversations perhaps. At the front of the garden is a statue of a fist clutching a pen and under it the sign: “In Memory of Martyred Journalists.”
Sitting in this garden, journalist Nasir Zaidi radiates kindness – years of fighting for press freedom have not made him hostile or cynical. “This is an authoritarian rule,” he says of his country. “This is a democratic facade. There is no freedom of the press in Pakistan. There are visible and invisible forces who are bent upon to get the press.”
“I am determined to keep fighting” was the thought that passed through Zaidi’s mind as he was being flogged in the yard of Kot Lakhpat Jail Lahore on May 13th, 1978.
He and three other journalists, Masoodullah Khan, Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Iqbal Jafri, were members of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and had launched a movement against hardline leader Zia-ul-Haq’s censorship of the press. They organised countrywide protests that resulted in 300 journalists being arrested and themselves receiving prison sentences of one year and five lashes each.
Beaten or abducted
Today, Pakistan has a vibrant media landscape, but its relationship with the free press has always been strained. The recent general election, which saw PTI leader Imran Khan run to victory, was marred with reports of journalists being threatened, beaten or abducted.
In its report, the EU Election Observation Mission said: “Concerted efforts to stifle the reporting environment were observed, and included intimidating phone calls to senior editors, the disruption and hindrance of the distribution of broadcast and print outlets, and harassment of individual journalists.”
Gul Bukhari, a well-known military critic, was abducted on June 5th as she travelled to a television interview. Her disappearance led to international outrage on social media and she was released after a few hours.
Bukhari says political interviews referring to election rigging were censored, and some journalists and student bloggers were detained by the authorities. Referring to the media restrictions, she says: “It’s the worst it has ever been, even during General Zia’s time, [and] during [former president Pervez] Musharraf’s time, the media was lively.”
That’s the refrain from several journalists: it’s worse than General Zia’s time. However, in a recent interview. Khan, the new prime minister, rejected suggestions that the integrity of the country’s media was under threat.
“I would never have succeeded here in Pakistan if I did not have an independent media where I was able to put forward my views and that’s the only way I succeeded in an entrenched two-party system, ” he said, adding: “Our government has not instituted one case against any journalist.”
Khan and his information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, say Pakistani journalists can write whatever they want, whenever they want.
Journalists in Pakistan, however, point to the precautions they feel they need to take to protect themselves, such as omitting paragraphs in case they bring unwanted attention. To avoid censorship in official media, which can come from external pressure or interventions by senior editors, many publish their work on online platforms. However, journalists report that state-sponsored trolls plague them relentlessly.
Jugnu Mohsin, editor of the Friday Times, Pakistan’s only independent weekly newspaper, told The Irish Times: “There is a lot of self-censorship in the media. I have been a working journalist for 30 years and it has never been this bad.”
For Mona Alam, actor-turned-anchor on the state-run PTV, the issue is not with the government, it’s with the channel’s middle management who she claims still pay homage to opposition parties the PPP or the PML-N. “They are the ones who question what stories I cover or what guests I speak to,” she said. “Otherwise I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of liberty. When the PTI took office, minister Chaudhry said he wanted PTV to be autonomous and run along the lines of the BBC.”
In a central London cafe this month, Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui took a moment. The winner of an Albert Londres prize – the French equivalent of the Pultizer prize – and founder of safenewsrooms.org, a digital platform documenting censorship in Asia, has had a turbulent year.
In January he escaped an abduction attempt which he says was triggered by his criticisms of the military and fled to Paris with his family. One of the reasons he left, he says, was because he didn’t want his five-year-old son to be told in school that his father was a traitor.
“We cannot be journalists in Pakistan because it’s impossible to speak freely,” he said. “Therefore if you believe in the absolute freedom of speech you have to pursue that cause and become an activist. Also, there is no one to look up to. Senior journalists don’t take on the establishment because they want to ‘live to fight another day’, but when will that day come? The smaller journalists don’t have the support to speak out. So we stay as we are.”
Siddiqui claims that the ISPR, the military’s public relations wing, has absolute authority over the press. “The whole process is micromanaged across the country. The ISPR have people who watch all the TV channels every single minute of the day. If they don’t like something, they call up the editor and say change that immediately. They have young recruits whose job it is to monitor the social media accounts of prominent journalists.”
Pakistan desperately wants to change its image. It frequently takes journalists from around the world on sponsored trips to highlight the best it has to offer. However, for journalists on the ground the red carpet is rarely rolled out. Instead it gathers dust in a lonely corner as newspaper circulation is tampered with, lives are interrupted and people fear the voice at the other end of the phone.