Self-censorship enforced by faceless elements

Type to search


Democracy Media

Self-censorship enforced by faceless elements

Freedom of Press

There couldn’t have been a better person to do an in-depth analysis on the state of censorship in Pakistani media than Muhammad Ziauddin, one of the most respected journalists in the country. In this article he discusses the problems media industry is facing at the hands of those in power.

As the country entered the year 2018 media in Pakistan found it was being subjected to unprecedented curbs. The pressure was so severe that journalists were seen taking liberties with the quality of information in their news stories and views perhaps to avoid being subjected to ‘disciplinary action’ by those imposing the curbs.

The ‘no-go’ areas were piling up as the country went into the last phase of general elections scheduled only six months away. An elected Prime Minister had just been shown the door by the Supreme Court. In his place another one had joined to lead the PML-N government to be followed by the process of installation of interim governments at the Centre and the provinces prior to the general elections.

It was during these politically highly unsettled days that the media was being forced to be selective with facts. And the irony was no written advice would come from elements imposing the curbs which made it impossible for journalists to name the faceless Editor which caused most to compromise on their personal credibility and integrity.

Reporting in any depth on happenings in Balochistan and the defunct FATA was completely off-limits. Those violating the unwritten code suffered and those who churned out reports to the liking of these elements found the right doors being thrown wide open for them.

The state has seemingly increased its restrictions on media freedom through barring access to information, intimidation and even inciting violence against journalists. As a result, media houses and journalists now refrain from covering sensitive issues out of fear of reprisal.

Over the last several months, numerous journalists in the print and broadcast media have complained of interference from outside in their professional activities. Additionally, sales and distribution agents have corroborated Dawn management’s complaint of unlawful interference with distribution of their newspaper across the country.

Justice Qazi Isa wrote: “whether television channels were making false statements by complaining that their transmissions were interrupted, blocked or reshuffled in certain parts of the country by some powers or some insidious forces were at work in the country.”

The widespread practice of self-censorship had caught the attention of even Justice Qazi Isa of the Supreme Court who while finally closing the hearing of a case relating to the 20-day Faizabad sit-in staged by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in November last year, wondered (Dawn on Nov. 23, 2018) “whether television channels were making false statements by complaining that their transmissions were interrupted, blocked or reshuffled in certain parts of the country by some powers or some insidious forces were at work in the country.”

One of Pakistan’s leading intellectuals, IA Rehman in one of his pieces in Dawn (Human rights priorities, Dec. 6, 2018) underscored complaints of censorship of a kind never experienced before. Well-known author, Mohammad Hanif in an interview on Dec. 2, 2018 on the occasion of the launch of his latest novel Red Birds said: Even if I want to write whatever I want, in the last few months I have started to think about the person who will be held responsible for publishing my writing.”

In a letter she wrote to Prime Minister Imran Khan in August 2018, the International Press Institute Executive Director Barbara Trionfi’s said: The ongoing attacks on independent media create a climate inimical to both democracy and the free flow of information necessary for a strong and corruption-free democracy that you have promised to usher in to create a new Pakistan.”

PTI government’s move very early in its tenure to block Voice of America’s Urdu and Pashto websites in Pakistan, while extremely disheartening, raises a red flag on the future of media freedom. Indeed, the independent media in Pakistan is facing serious intimidation, restrictions on the sale and circulation of newspapers as well as the blockading of television broadcasts by the authorities.

Facebook’s latest transparency report shows the highest number of government requests for content restriction were from Pakistan — a staggering 2,203, or 14 per cent of total content restrictions in the world.

A climate of fear impedes media coverage of abuses both by government security forces and militant groups. Media outlets remain under pressure from the authorities to avoid reporting on several issues including criticism of government institutions and the judiciary.

What is alarming is that tech companies based abroad have started to give in to government requests for censorship, euphemistically called ‘content restriction’.“Facebook’s latest transparency report shows the highest number of government requests for content restriction were from Pakistan — a staggering 2,203, or 14 per cent of total content restrictions in the world.  Twitter, known for turning down government requests, has recently sent notices to Pakistani Twitter users, including some in exile, due to threats from state actors, warning them against criticising government policies. This means that PTA and FIA are sending a high number of requests, and owing to broad powers under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016, companies are complying.

The Freedom House has declared Pakistan “Not Free” in terms of internet use for the seventh consecutive year in its global report released in December 2018. The report showed that the country’s ranking had been worsening over the years.

With a ranking of 19, out of 25, for Obstacles to Access index for 2017, the bar sits at 20 for 2018. Violations of User Rights index, which placed this country at 32 out of 40 in 2017, put it at 33 for the 2018.

The Pakistan report has been authored by Digital Rights Foundation, a research-based advocacy non-governmental organisation which works on online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.

The report placed Pakistan at 73, out of 100 (100 being the worst), in Internet Freedom Status index for 2018 — two places worse than previous year’s ranking. With a ranking of 19, out of 25, for Obstacles to Access index for 2017, the bar sits at 20 for 2018. Violations of User Rights index, which placed this country at 32 out of 40 in 2017, put it at 33 for the 2018.

The report observed that internet freedom was marked by a continuity of trends that were set in motion in 2017 and had declined in some aspects following some dramatic incidents of intimidation and violence related to online activities.

Internet shutdown, a problematic cybercrime law, and cyber-attacks against political dissenters contributed to the ongoing deterioration. Political speech was vulnerable to restriction as the country entered the election mode, the report noted, adding that in the lead-up to the vote, bots supporting political parties surfaced online, including many spewing disinformation.

The government, the report regretted, continued to use national security to justify internet shutdown and restrictions on social media as well as other communication platforms. Social media campaigns disseminating false information have also had an adverse impact in offline spaces.

The internet users in Pakistan continued to be arrested and prosecuted for online expression, while torture and sexual violence during detention remained a pressing problem. There had been complaints of detailed technical attacks targeting human rights defenders, their accounts and devices.

Technical attacks against websites of NGOs, opposition groups and activists were common in Pakistan, although many went unreported. In January and April last year, Dawn.com revealed that its website was subjected to sustained cyber-attacks.

Internet shutdowns in the region formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and parts of Balochistan were frequently observed.

With a number of well-known, relatively progressive journalists having to leave their position of some importance as anchors (Matiullah Jan of Waqat TV, Talat Hussain of Geo TV and Nusrat Javeed of DawnTV) or participants in television talk shows (Imtiaz Alam), the silencing of even minimal dissent has given way to the worst form of inane chatter on television

Nighat Dad, the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, lamented the lack of progress over the last one year in terms of internet freedom: “We have seen the effects of the draconian laws and regulations that take root in an internet regulation culture where censorship and criminalisation of political speech have led to harsh punishments and has become the norm all over.”

With a number of well-known, relatively progressive journalists having to leave their position of some importance as anchors (Matiullah Jan of Waqat TV, Talat Hussain of Geo TV and Nusrat Javeed of DawnTV) or participants in television talk shows (Imtiaz Alam), the silencing of even minimal dissent has given way to the worst form of inane chatter on television.

Currently, part of Pakistan’s media not in the good books of the state is taunted with pejoratives like ‘treasonous’ or ‘corrupt’ — the favourite insults of populists who wish to delegitimise the press and its criticisms — by more than one institution of government.

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) has expressed deep concern on a number of occasions during the year over the condition of freedom of the press in the country, saying the media is undergoing a phase of extreme suffocation and unnecessary restrictions.

This is happening despite the fact that PTI’s election manifesto had promised the party’s commitment to maintaining a vigorous free media, “which will evolve its own rules to ensure responsible journalism both in the electronic and print media.”

The PTI manifesto had also promised to ensure laws for timely implementation of Wage Board decisions and for ensuring that media houses pay journalists their salaries and bonuses on a regular and timely basis, “we will also ensure that media owners provide insurance, training and protective cover for their journalists working in conflict zones in particular and in the field in general.”

It had promised to make PEMRA autonomous “so it does not become a political tool in the hands of any government to target the freedom of the electronic media.”

And it had also promised to make PBC and PTV autonomous with their own Board of Governors similar to the BBC model.

It is only through word of mouth that one learns the stories of how the media and media workers are being forced to practice self-censorship. And those who tell their harrowing stories refuse to go on record

One felt that a grave-yard like silence has descended on the national media as not only it is not talking about the oppressive environment unleashed by an unannounced and unspoken self-censorship of the harshest kind but the very media which would go viral if even a handful of people were fired from their jobs in other industries, has, notwithstanding the protest rallies being brought out by working journalists, however, maintained an almost criminal silence on the almost widespread job losses in print and broadcast media and closure of a couple of TV channels and scores of newspapers, claiming financial starvation.

Related Post:   IMF Approved USD 6 Billion Loan. But Can Pakistan Meet Revenue Target To Service The Debt?

It is only through word of mouth that one learns the stories of how the media and media workers are being forced to practice self-censorship. And those who tell their harrowing stories refuse to go on record seemingly in the interest of their economic and physical well-being.

Newspaper distributors in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh, again without going on record for the same reasons mentioned earlier have confirmed allegations by Dawn that disruptions and intermittent closures in commercial establishments and residential areas associated with the military have had a serious impact on its circulation. Following the publication of an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on 12 May 2018, sales agents allege that the distribution of Dawn was disrupted daily in at least 20 targeted cities and towns – specifically in cantonment areas and army offices and schools. And in the aftermath the journalist who conducted the interview, Cyril Almieda, is facing treason charges.

Hawkers report being subjected to continual harassment, threats and physical coercion by military personnel while attempting to deliver copies of Dawn to regular subscribers. At least a couple of distributors confirm that they were asked to provide information on their subscribers.

Dawn has also claimed that, since October 2016 that is soon after publication of what is called Dawnleaks on October 6, 2016, it has suffered a complete ban on advertising from organizations falling under the domain of the ISPR, including DHA and other commercial establishments.

According to the facts gathered by an HRCP fact finding mission which are contained in its August, 2018 report (Curbs on freedom of expression) and which have also been quoted extensively in a report on the state of media for the year 2018 by Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), a number of cable operators in Punjab and GB have complained of having been compelled to take certain channels off air. The orders are said to be conveyed through telephone from persons identifying themselves as state or intelligence agency officials, warning them to ‘remove’ Geo TV from the list of channels being transmitted or to move it to the very end, thereby making it less accessible. The cable operators that volunteered the information claimed that they had no choice but to comply for fear their business would be closed down or attacked.

Dawn is perhaps the most influential newspaper in country and the combined reach of news and views of Geo-Jang-The News makes it the market leader by lengths. The message that went to the entire industry in no time and in very clear terms was that if these two prominent media houses could be targeted in the form of disruptions of circulation and transmission with complete impunity the lesser media groups better fall in line lest they are made to pay a heavier price – complete annihilation in case they try to take foolish chances!

The most commonly tabooed subjects are: missing persons, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Baloch separatists and rights activists such as Mama Qadeer, the Panama trial and NAB references, the disqualification and arrest of Nawaz Sharif

Verbal press advice received either on the telephone or during a visit, usually pertains to what should not be published or broadcast. The most commonly tabooed subjects are: missing persons, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Baloch separatists and rights activists such as Mama Qadeer, the Panama trial and NAB references, the disqualification and arrest of Nawaz Sharif, references to any questionable decisions by the judiciary, allegations of judicial overreach and questions about the armed forces.

A couple of persons in the media management position have also claimed that they were asked to use the terms ‘criminal’ or ‘convicted’ – rather than ‘former Prime Minister’ – to identify Nawaz Sharif. Other topics unpopular with the establishment include criticism of the PTI.

Another reportedly common piece of advice to the broadcast media is that the channel should give greater coverage to PTI rallies and only minimal coverage to other parties’ events. Other issues raised over what was termed ‘a friendly cup of tea’ – the standard euphemism applied to summons from state agencies – include questions pertaining to coverage of national security issues, editorial policies and even reporters’ sources.

Many print and broadcast journalists say that a common consequence of ‘disobeying’ instructions is vicious character assassinations through anonymous social media accounts and social networking platforms that go so far as to incite violence against media persons – and in the case of women, rape threats

The advice may be issued by civil bureaucrats, the office of the DG Press and Information or directly by the ISPR, often relayed through the management.

And in addition to communicating directly with ‘errant’ journalists, state or intelligence agencies tend to approach channel or newspaper owners directly, threatening their channel/publication or parent business with NAB or FIA cases or suspension of advertisements unless they agree to abide by certain conditions.

Many print and broadcast journalists say that a common consequence of ‘disobeying’ instructions is vicious character assassinations through anonymous social media accounts and social networking platforms that go so far as to incite violence against media persons – and in the case of women, rape threats.

A couple of journalists claimed that they were called in for questioning by state or intelligence agencies and interrogated about international funding and contact with separatists.

One senior anchorperson claims that ‘technical faults’ are often cited by the management as a reason for not broadcasting a program on ‘sensitive’ subjects. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that anchors are not taken into confidence by the management as to what they can or cannot say on air. He also alleges that the management sends the material they have edited out of his programs to the military establishment to remain in the latter’s ‘good books’. This, he says, simply makes him more vulnerable. He sees this as a double game: the establishment, too, might show an anchor a recording of material the management has edited out as ‘evidence’ of the latter’s ‘insincerity’, creating divisions between employees and management.

At least seven editors and reporters in GB have testified to receiving press advice and being threatened with dire consequences – including threats of arrest, violence or death – if they do not comply. Most say they are warned against giving coverage to nationalists and reporting negatively about state institutions and government departments. In one extreme case, an editor and publisher who did not comply, despite being offered bribes and his life threatened five times, was accused of being on the payroll of foreign spy agencies. A case was registered against him under the Terrorism Act and he was arrested. He remains in prison.

A number of journalists alleged that the establishment uses a long list of the so-called ‘rewards’ for those of their community who carry out its clandestine orders to the letter. This list of ‘rewards’ include bribes of foreign travel, allotment of plots and other privileges, professional advancement, cash bribes, promises of advertisement revenue and government jobs.

Overall, continuing intimidation and the perceived need to self-censor has severely hampered objective journalism. It has also taken a toll on members of staff, some of whom have refused to work or left. This has left particularly the newspapers beleaguered, with threats also emanating from religious radicals, separatists and officials of nationalist or political parties if news on their activities is not published.

A number of journalists alleged that the establishment uses a long list of the so-called ‘rewards’ for those of their community who carry out its clandestine orders to the letter. This list of ‘rewards’ include bribes of foreign travel, allotment of plots and other privileges, professional advancement, cash bribes, promises of advertisement revenue and government jobs.

One of the major reasons for the establishment to be acting with such complete impunity is the failure of the working journalists to speak with one voice. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) is too splintered.

Press advice to social media users, especially those critical of state policies, has also increased. Any criticism of the policies of the military or discussions of extremist violence attracts the most press advice. Journalists have received advice from the ISPR and from civil agencies such as the FIA, which, they allege, has begun to call social media users for ‘hearings’ relating to their online activity, albeit with no supporting official orders. Some of the journalists admitted to having received direct requests to delete specific tweets.

One female journalist claimed she was detained for one night in Lahore a day before the PTM rally in April 2018. She alleges that she was hit with the butt of a gun and pushed so that her head hit the wall.

In January 2018, one of the journalists Taha Siddiqui escaped an abduction attempt during which his travel documents, laptop and phone were taken. He went into exile soon after. Subsequently, he set up a website ‘Safe Newsrooms’ to enable whistle-blowers to unmask censorship, but the website was blocked soon after.

One female journalist claimed she was detained for one night in Lahore a day before the PTM rally in April 2018. She alleges that she was hit with the butt of a gun and pushed so that her head hit the wall. She was called a traitor and then put in solitary confinement overnight at the Counter Terrorism Department headquarters in Lahore. Subsequently, her computer was attacked with malware through a video link sent to her three days before the PTM rally in Karachi in May 2018 and her internet data blocked for a month during the same period.

The short-lived abduction of Gul Bokhari, a columnist of The Nation was nothing if not a brazen act of terrorism. And a first of its kind.

Never ever in the last 71 years had a female journalist been made to suffer the humiliation of being manhandled, kidnapped and subjected to mental and physical torture!

Gul Bokhari was picked up from one of the most secured areas of Lahore. A sort of a Red Zone which no one can enter without having to go through the most vigilant of check-posts manned by armed to teeth paramilitary personnel. Perhaps those who committed the crime did not want to leave any doubt about their identity.

This incident as well as a couple of others, as brazen and audacious, was perhaps a signal meant to scare the media community at large into total subjugation.

These methods are used by the state without a thought to its negative consequences for the nation even in the medium term.

Share Now
  • 43
    Shares

Disclaimer: Naya Daur believes in providing space for views and opinions from all sides. But we may not agree with everything we publish. In case of columns and articles not published in Naya Daur’s name, the information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of nayadaur.tv. We do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Muhammad Ziauddin

The author is a senior journalist and editor.

  • 1

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *