Pakistan blocks distribution of Dawn newspaper after publishing Sharif's interview

Suddaf Chaudry | Jun 16, 2018 | 5 min read


Pakistani Media Under Pressure Pre Election

Strap: Driven by 'campaign of fear' over criticism of state, 88% journalists self-censor stories, particularly on security and religion  

By Suddaf Chaudry

Islamabad: “Militant organisations, call them non-state actors, are active,” said former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in an interview to Dawn, one of the country’s oldest and leading English dailies. In the interview published on May 12, the former Prime Minister went on to ask “should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me.” India was quick to pounce, claiming the statement confirmed Pakistan government’s support to the terrorists who attacked Mumbai. The Pakistan government was quick to pounce on Dawn, disrupting its distribution in different parts of the country since May 15, especially in Balochistan and Sindh province, and to civilians living in military cantonments. The Press Council of Pakistan too issued a notice to Dawn for what it called “violating the Ethical Code of Conduct”, an action that led to an expression of concern from the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

With general elections scheduled for July 25, the action against Dawn has been described by Pakistan’s journalists as a “campaign of fear against anyone criticising the establishment.” Apparently, the Pakistan military was particularly upset with the interview, including the part about “why can’t we complete the trials”, Sharif’s reference to the many pending prosecutions of those accused of involvement in the Mumbai attack. Pakistan had responded to India’s statements as a “gross misinterpretation of Sharif’s comments.”

The pressure against Dawn in particular and the Pakistani media in general, has been mounting for some time. Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas in a recent tweet described the unannounced policy of “self-censorship” as “suffocating”, though he refused to comment for this story. There has been no official response on the disruption of distribution of Dawn editions. After the publication of the interview, Pakistan army’s spokesmen, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, at a press conference on June 4, which had a slide show, accused a number of journalists of anti-state activities. “We do have the capability to monitor social media, to see who is doing what,” he said. In response, the PFUJ in a press release on June 6 requested the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of Pakistan's Armed Forces, “to withdraw its sweeping statements against journalists”. However, on June 8, Afzal Butt, PFUJ president said “with respect to a slide mentioning social media accounts, it is not meant to target any individual or the journalist community”. Many journalists mentioned in that presentation felt this was abject surrender to the military. Afzal Butt and PFUJ secretary Ayub Jan Sarhandi did not respond to our request for a comment.

'88% journalists self-censor stories'

Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit based out of New York that promotes press freedom worldwide, said in a tweet that “displaying photos of journalists who allegedly are helping push anti-state propaganda is tantamount to painting a giant target on their backs.” Added Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s Asia associate,  in response to an email request for comments: “Pakistan has long been a dangerous environment for journalists to work in, but this appears to be a particularly trying time for the press, as the country prepares for elections. If there is a climate of fear and the media isn’t able to do its job properly, Pakistan cannot ensure that its elections will be free and fair”.

A number of journalists from leading broadcast and print publications we spoke to allege an increase in trolling against those raising concerns about press freedom. One reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “We are forced to practice self-censorship. If we do not delete a tweet then our management will face the consequences.” According to Media Matters for Democracy, a policy research initiative based in Islamabad, 88% of journalist’s self-censor their stories, especially on subjects relating to security and religion.

Maj Gen Ghafoor held an undisclosed four-and-a-half-hour meeting with a select group of journalists on June 8, four days after his slide-show press conference in which he had admitted that the state was monitoring social media posts of journalists. A journalist who was present at the meeting, said “reporters were briefed on the slide presentation and asked whether that had impacted the safety of journalists mentioned. We were asked if we objected to the ISPR slides publicising the names of journalists. All the journalists present said the names should not have been published. Maj Gen Ghafoor apologised for the slides saying, "in hindsight, it wasn’t right, we are learning too".

Agencies keeping watch

The actions against Dawn and the incident at Geo TV, where one of its journalists and social media activists Gul Bukhari was “abducted” for a few hours, indicate the increasing pressure against free and fair reporting by journalists without fear of intimidation. Bukhari was reportedly whisked away by unknown assailants on her way to Waqt News to appear on a show. The producer of the show said “she was perhaps abducted by agencies. We know from our driver who was beaten up”. Bukhari was freed a few hours later and her experience was mentioned in that June 8 meeting between Ghafoor and the select group of journalists. The army spokesman did not elaborate on the subject, sticking to the official comment of supporting investigation of the abduction. However, in a lighter and more candid vein, the general did quip that “what good is an intelligence agency if it leaves traces behind.”

Amnesty International released a report last week urging authorities to end the crackdown on press freedom ahead of the July 25 elections. But CPJ’s Aliya Iftikhar said the challenges to this are manifold. “The pervasive climate of threat that journalists face, some perpetuated by the Pakistani army, means the country cannot make meaningful progress in improving the climate of press freedom.” Pakistan ranks 139 out of 180 countries in Reporters Sans Frontiers 2018 World Press Freedom Index.


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