Self censorship descends on Pakistani media as polls loom
Prominent news organizations are playing it safe and censoring news as Pakistan heads into a contentious general election
With the general elections a couple of months away, media houses and publications in Pakistan are increasingly exercising self-censorship under pressure from the military establishment.
The latest instance of this type of censorship was the state media not airing Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s press conference on Monday after the National Security Committee meeting on Nawaz Sharif’s Mumbai attacks statement.
News producers from multiple media houses have confirmed that there were clear instructions from the military leadership to censor the PM’s press conference, which resulted in even the state-owned PTV editing Abbasi’s comments before airing them.
Pakistani media has been under attack from multiple sources in the country, prompting watchdogs like the Freedom Network to dub it the “most dangerous place to be a journalist.” However, the army’s involvement in shaping the narrative in the country has often been cited as the biggest hindrance for local media practitioners.
This interference has gradually increased this year as the elections approach. In March, Pakistan’s most popular channel, Geo TV, which has often taken a pro-government stance aligned against the military, was taken off the air by cable operators.
Cable operators in Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi confirmed that they were ‘issued instructions’ by military officials to remove Geo TV, or shift the channel from its original number. Another large scale blackout was seen in the coverage of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, or lack thereof, with the PTM’s rallies in Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi not covered by any TV channel with only a couple of English daily newspapers giving it some coverage.
Among the publications which did cover the PTM rallies was Daily Times, whose editor Raza Rumi was targeted in a shooting in March 2014. He later left Pakistan.
“It is the fear of the unknown that has led to self-censorship becoming a norm. It affects news reporting in various ways, as sometime stories or reports are edited to reflect the popular narrative,” Rumi told Asia Times. “Often many stories that should have been in the newspaper are not printed at all. Even in publishing op-eds and writing editorials we have to censor ourselves. It’s now the brutal norm.”
Rumi also blames the lack of unity among media houses for the level of censorship that has been enforced. “When I was attacked in 2014, rival media houses did not care to highlight the issue. And after that when [Geo anchor] Hamid Mir was attacked, they declared him a traitor while he was recovering. A disunited media industry is an ideal environment for exerting controls.”
A survey released by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) earlier this month revealed that 88% of Pakistani journalists exercise self-censorship. The MMfD founder and executive director feels the media has ‘internalized censorship.’ “I mean if 88% journalists are already self-censoring themselves, there isn’t much need to control the media,” he told Asia Times, adding that an increase in self-censorship with elections looming is consistent with what was observed before and after the general elections in 2008 and 2013.
The MMfD’s Asad Baig cites the Pakistan cybercrime law, known as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, as a factor in journalists self-censoring themselves on social media. “PECA is one cause yes, but then they also have to fear attacks on them. Digital attacks and campaigns are also getting popular.”
Journalist Farooq Sulehria, the author of Media Imperialism in India and Pakistan believes manipulation is a major factor in the ongoing spate of self-censorship. “There is a militarization of media. Whether the military is in direct control of the government or not, it commands huge control over the media and it is actually the main manipulator,” he told Asia Times.
Sulehria added that direct violence against the media with the aim of censoring people has increased. “This violence is employed by state security agencies, militant groups of all sorts as well as powerful individuals,” he said.
Daily Times editor Rumi agrees, saying that the fear of reprisals by a state or non-state actor is an intense reality for many journalists. “Even I don’t want to face the same situation as I plan to return to Pakistan and at least start spending time there.”
Baig feels the political leadership hasn’t helped its cause by refusing to create more awareness among the masses of their fundamental rights. “I don’t hear anything about fundamental rights anywhere in the political campaigning,” Baig says.
“The first thing that political leaders should promise their constituents is the guarantee of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. Only then can we move towards a revival of democratic values in this country.”