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  • Paksitani journalists protest against media censorship.

    Paksitani journalists protest against media censorship. | Photo: Reuters

Published 31 July 2019
Opinion

"We, media owners and journalists alike, are in a state of siege. Big brother isn’t just watching anymore. He is cracking the whip and it’s painful," a Pakistani journalist said. 

Pakistani opposition parties and journalists have accused Prime Minister Imran Khan of intimidating broadcasters into a blackout on television coverage of his critics after several TV channels were briefly taken off-air and opposition protests and news conferences passed unreported.

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Khan denies censoring the media, describing such accusations as “a joke” during a visit to Washington this month, but relations with the press and broadcasters have become increasingly strained since he took office nearly a year ago.

Fuelling the criticism, as Khan headed back from the United States last Wednesday a news conference by opposition leader Maryam Nawaz went off-air within minutes of starting. “Pakistan’s media is facing the worst censorship,” Nawaz told the news conference, which was broadcast on YouTube. “If any news channel tries to air our presser or rallies, it is threatened to go off air.”

Newsgroups have also been alarmed by proposals to establish special courts to hear cases relating to the media.

The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) described the proposal as institutionalized “arm-twisting”.

“The media is already braving strong pressures in the form of press advice and measures of intimidation from ruling quarters which are tantamount to undeclared censorship,” it said.

Khan’s government dismisses the criticism and says it is dealing with the consequences of abuses by past administrations, who it says used lucrative government advertising business to buy favorable coverage.

His Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party earlier this month posted a series of tweets warning media houses and journalists that they should not “end up propagating (the) enemy’s stance” in criticizing the government.

Pakistan’s press has had a turbulent relationship with successive governments and the powerful military over many years. Some in the media complained of a severe crackdown in the run-up to the 2018 general election that saw Khan’s PTI party sweep to power.

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Writers and bloggers say several cases of reporters being abducted and beaten, critical columnists being denied space, advertising business cut to media houses and sackings of unfavorable TV commentators have created a climate of fear and self-censorship. 

Najam Sethi, a local journalist said, “We, media owners and journalists alike, are in a state of siege. The pressure to control, manipulate, plant, tilt, block and propagate the news and analysis cycle comes from overt and covert civil-military platforms. Big brother isn’t just watching anymore. He is cracking the whip and it’s painful.”

Geo News TV, the country’s biggest private broadcaster, has suffered a series of problems since late July.

Coverage was abruptly suspended and its position on cable dials dropped from a favorable place at the top of the list to a slot near the bottom.

Geo TV’s Managing Director Azhar Abbas said the broadcaster had received no warning or explanation and had not been notified of who had ordered the changes.

“The closure is without any prior notice to the organization by the regulatory authority or the government,” he told Reuters. “We have made fervent attempts to reach out to ... the military media wing, but officials there also deny any involvement.”

Mohammad Tahir, the spokesman for the state-run regulator Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA), denied that it had issued instructions to broadcasters not to run interviews

The government’s main spokesperson, Firdous Aashiq Awan, told a meeting of Pakistani newspaper editors in Karachi last week that the PEMRA was an independent body just doing its job. She did not comment on who was behind the blackouts.

The Pakistan Broadcast Association (PBA) has condemned the shutdowns, while the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the blockage of Geo TV was “an unfortunate illustration of how widespread censorship has become in Pakistan”.

Journalists’ bodies in Pakistan have held demonstrations nationwide. Reporters without Borders said in a statement last week that PEMRA, “takes its lead from the military establishment.”

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