A pattern of insidious crackdowns on social media over the past few years have materialized into palpable fear, particularly for journalists and activists, who are speaking out against the suppressive Pakistan authority, and calling into question the strength of democratic values in Pakistan. Pakistan’s growing desire to demonstrate themselves as a strong global power and conceal human rights violations have directly challenged the extent to which the right to freedom of expression is valued today.
A concentrated series of incidents occurred in the months leading up to the July 2018 Parliamentary elections, executed as a ‘campaign’ to combat criticism from the media by limiting the autonomy of cable channels, broadcasting companies and various streams of social media. A note from Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) advised the media not to “air derogatory and malicious content” against the judiciary and the army. Escalated pressure from government has pushed printing press companies to only publish certain newspapers, and for cable operators to only broadcast certain channels that are favorable to Pakistan’s government. The newspapers and channels that were isolated out suffered financial constraints, resulting in drastic downsizing or completely shutting down. Media outlets that are financially able to continue are often blocked in particular regions if they report on content deemed too critical of the government. Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest English newspaper, is just one example, who was accused of ethical violations during their reporting and its publication was later blocked in major areas of Southern Pakistan.
Individuals are confronted as well; many journalists have been fired for publicly questioning the veracity of the election and criticizing the unfair imprisonment of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, including prime time news hosts Talat Hussain, Murtaza Solangi, Matiullah Jan and Nusrat Javed. There have been additional reports of journalists being threatened or abducted. A well-known human rights journalist, Taha Siddiqui, was able to escape an abduction attempt by eight armed men in Islamabad on his way to the airport in 2018. The unidentifiable men beat and threatened to shoot Siddiqui. He escaped by jumping out into oncoming traffic and rushed into a taxi. Siddiqui was a correspondent for France24 news television channel and was known for being a critic of Pakistan’s military-led government. After the abduction, Siddiqui fled to France with his family.
Additionally, three activists in 2017 were reportedly abducted for three weeks and interrogated for their criticisms of Pakistan’s military. Although the abductors refuse to reveal themselves, officials of the Pakistan government publicly condone any negative opinions that may damage Pakistan’s image. The former Minister of Information, Fawad Chaudhry, reaffirmed Pakistan’s interests to build stronger relations with social media giants for regulation purposes at the ‘National Security, Nation Building and Mass Media’ conference in 2018. The former Minister of State for Interior, Shehryar Khan Afridi, also spoke at the conference and urged the media to play a larger role in protecting national security, thereby reporting less on ‘negative’ news. Any social media activity deemed an ‘anti-state’ activity would be monitored closely by the army’s spy agency, said General Asif Ghafoor in June 2018.
Pakistan authority’s deny any interference or targeting of individuals and media groups leading up to the election. After Imran Khan was elected in 2018, #SelectedPM began to trend on Twitter, suggesting Prime Minister Khan was undemocratically elected. In response, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Qasim Khan Suri, declared the phrase “selected prime minister” completely prohibited and unable to be discussed in reference to the election. An academic and participant in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) movement by the name of Ammar Ali Jan’ posted a tweet that reflects the level of political manipulation and repression existing in Pakistan:
“The term #SelectedPM touches the repressed truths of our history. They include electoral engineering, manipulation of information, use of violence against opponents and extension of pardon to turncoats. It’s not the government, but the entire infrastructure of power that feels exposed.”
The assaults on civil society’s freedom of expression display the backsliding of democratic values occurring in Pakistan along with an increase in autocratic political control. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch can attest to the increase of violent intimidation, censorship and political manipulation. Attacks on journalists are not a new narrative for Pakistan: at least 61 journalists have been killed in connection with their work in Pakistan since 2010; it is simply the role of technology and social media that has transformed the arena in which these conflicts occur.
The growing constraints on freedom of expression are imposing fear amongst civilians as well as the media. Leading up to the election of 2018, human rights defenders, protestors and activists were faced with arrests, disappearances, and accusations of treason. There is an enigmatic, yet influential, push from the military to suppress dissent among citizens and inflict an inaccurate narrative of the socioeconomic and political security of Pakistan. The Pakistan government has been known to file complaints directly to social media companies to combat its own critics, and there have been reports of Twitter accounts suddenly being suspended for comments deemed unacceptable by the government.
Particular minority groups such as the Pashtuns are subjected to much of the suppression. The Pakistan authorities blocked the website of Voice of America’s Pashto Language radio service in 2018. In addition, a PTM rally resulted in dozens of cases being filed against the participants. A human rights defender by the name of Hayat Preghal, was faced with charges of “anti-state” online expression in support of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Preghal was a pharmacist in the United Arab Emirates and was in Pakistan on leave. While there, he was put on a no-fly list and lost his job. Preghal is just one of the many activists falling victim to the political pressures and restrictions growing more tangible across Pakistan.
Freedom House released a report on June 5 of this year entitled “The Media 2019”, which discusses the various tools fragile democracies are using to silence independent journalists and maintain control. The summary report states that “while Pakistan’s elections were more competitive, influence over the courts and the media was widely thought to have tilted the context of Imran Khan.”
Pakistan authorities choose to disregard Article 19 of their Constitutional commitment to maintain the right to freedom of expression and speech, and fundamental rights expected to be upheld by their government. The Pakistan Military is proactively seeking out political dissidents using intimidation tactics in an effort to maintain control domestically and portray a strong international image. The rise in censorship impacts all sectors of civil society. While a facade of democracy remains, media bodies and activists continue to speak out and raise concerns publicly until they regain the strength of a democracy.
Photo Credit: KM Chaudary/AP