In recent weeks, Pakistan has seen interviews of two high-profile Opposition leaders being taken off air, raising fears of growing censorship of media by the government.
After former President Asif Ali Zardari’s interview went off-air from Geo News earlier this month, an interview with Maryam Nawaz, leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, on Hum News met with the same fate last week.
Journalist Nadeem Malik, who interviewed Ms. Nawaz, tweeted that he “just came to know [that] @MaryamNSharif interview has been stopped forcefully just few minutes after it started Live”. He telecast the interview on his Twitter and YouTube accounts.
In a press conference held earlier this month, Ms. Nawaz played a video of Judge Arshad Malik in which he is seen allegedly admitting that he was blackmailed into giving a verdict against former Prime Minister Sharif. TV channels showed her press conference live and were later sent notices by the regulatory authority PEMRA.
Later, Ms. Nawaz held a rally in Mandi Bahauddin in Punjab. Three channels that gave coverage to the rally were taken off air. It took almost a day of back-channel negotiations to restore them. The media has been directed not to give airtime to those under trial or those who have been convicted.
“Don’t know [how long the censorship will continue] but as a journalist, my job is to dig out facts and report, which I will continue to do. The Islamabad High Court’s decision [to remove Judge Arshad Malik] also proves that it was the professional journalistic effort to highlight the issues relating to the videos transparently and justly,” Nadeem Malik told The Hindu .
Senior journalist Najam Sethi was also planning to interview Ms. Nawaz, but it couldn’t even be recorded. “Our Channel 24 HD was taken off air following instructions from unnamed government and state organs to cable operators across the country,” Mr. Sethi told The Hindu .
The channel’s management was told that ‘excessive’ coverage of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s rally would not be condoned, Mr. Sethi added.
The channel was restored after a few days following countrywide condemnation by media and political parties of bullying tactics. “However, when I subsequently scheduled an interview of Maryam Nawaz, Channel 24 management pulled it at the last minute. It seems there was a palpable threat that if the interview went ahead, the channel would be taken off air for a whole month.”
Mr. Sethi believes that resistance is mounting. “Respected journalists are standing up and telling tales of personal repression. Some small channels are defying state censorship. Media bodies and political parties are raising concerns in public. If there is public agitation against the government’s back-breaking economic policies, the media can peg its freedom to it and break its chains,” said Mr. Sethi.
In recent days, intimidation and harassment of journalists have taken another form. “What happened at my house is obviously to harass me, which is an old tactic,” award winning journalist Asma Shirazi told The Hindu, referring to two incidents of attempted break-in.
“It is not possible for us to stay silent and not voice our dissent. Our fight for freedom of expression and the truth will continue. Censorship is there and it is blatant. We are fighting a war against such censorship. We have a long history of fighting for media freedom. We will not give up,” she added.
Journalist Munizae Jahangir said that in a democracy, the Opposition should be allowed to be heard; media should not be censored through vague laws or forced to self-censor; and civil society movements should not be maligned and/or banned as ‘anti-state’ movements. “National security cannot be about protecting vested interests of a powerful military but must instead protect vulnerable citizens of society. Pakistan is a resilient country with strong lawyers’ bodies, divided yet lively journalist unions, a fierce Opposition and citizens that have fought for their rights under harsher circumstances, so I am confident that at the very least there will be a ferocious fight for democratic values,” Ms. Jahangir said.
Anchorperson Fereeha Idrees believes that the notion that there is a gag order on media in Pakistan is now spreading.
“Sooner rather than later, it will come to haunt the government. If anyone has been the beneficiary of free media, it has been this government. During the dharna days, my present channel AbbTakk faced a serious [closure] threat because of the then PML-N government’s pressure, but we sustained the pressure to support the Opposition and their right to free speech. Sadly and ironically, ever since the PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] has come into power, they have built a narrative that anyone who speaks against them is either paid or a traitor,” she said.
She added that Pakistan is seeing a very active but directionless PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority), which is putting channels off air with little or no notice just because they are showing two sides of the story.
“The other day, a PTI spokesperson labelled me a criminal for glorifying Maryam Nawaz's speech because I was reading out her tweet. Such a level of intolerance is only reflective of a narrow vision. If the government wants us to tell a good story, they need to give us good stories instead of yelling at us for showing voice of dissent,” Ms. Idrees said.