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Media Censorship: Of Muzzled Voices And Throttled Freedoms

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The media in Pakistan has for years worked under the shadow of scare tactics, but situation has clearly worsened under the current government, argues Masood Hameed.

The PTI’s official handle on Twitter warned journalists against endorsing the enemy’s stance, ‘speaking in its language’, and linked criticism of the government to treason.

In Pakistan, human rights are trampled on, voices muzzled, media freedoms throttled, the people’s yearning for freedom of expression and dissent – it is all very messy. But unstable too that could descend to anarchy for days to come.

Last year it was winter days, cool breeze turned weather cold in the provincial capital’s city Quetta Balochistan. The mysterious clouds also rolled over Quetta, I wrapped myself in a leather jacket set off to the Human Rights office. I was covering a story for Herald Magazine on the issue of enforced disappearances that inflicted on Balochistan.  There was panic everywhere in the capital’s city, no one dared to talk on this sensitive issue, in a fear that they could be picked up by men in plain clothes if they publicly delve into this topic.

However, as I walked into the human rights office, the rights activist marveled at hearing me. But I mustered up the courage to put a pen on paper to write a story about enforced disappearances at that uncertain atmosphere, full of chaos and bedlam. The issue of missing persons is still considered a grey area, and does not make headlines on mainstream media.

If a journalist speaks about the alleged role of security forces in such cases, it is tantamount to inviting risk at oneself. It also involves the fear of going missing.

Pamela Constable in her book ‘ Playing with fire, Pakistan at war with itself’ writes that Pakistan’s media tends to treat ISI with kid gloves. Television anchors and newspaper reports almost never mention the agency by name, instead using euphemisms such as “sensitive government agencies,” which all readers and viewers understand.

Reporting the issue of Pashtun Tahffuz Movement (PTM) and the case of enforced disappearances particularly about Balochistan are no-go areas for most journalists. Dawn newspaper and Herald magazine have, however, been trying to cover the issue nevertheless.

Herald, the iconic monthly English magazine, recently suspended its print edition after 50 years. The reason behind its closure, we are told, is financial pressure. But one of the reasons could be a smear campaign that the coercive force of the state frequently use to silence those who dare to dissent.

Zahid Hussain, a columnist at Dawn, writes that the closure of Herald marks the end of one of the brightest chapters in independent journalism in Pakistan. In over 50 years of its publication, the magazine upheld the finest traditions of professionalism and resistance.

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The blatant censorship has put the freedom of media in shackles. Most recently, a Twitter campaign was launched under the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists, with over 28,000 tweets published in a matter of hours. Specific targets were journalists who are critical of government and the military.

In 2014, there was an assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, a prominent journalist and anchor person at Geo News TV, because he dared to demand justice for Balochistan. The recent censorship of his interview with Pakistan’s former president Asif Ali Zardari, has bred same consequences, once faced by Dawn for publishing an interview of Pakistan’s former Prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. Mir subsequently tweeted that “we don’t live in a free country”.

The media in Pakistan has for years worked under the shadow of scare tactics, but situation has clearly worsened under the current government, which seems to be doing it all at the behest of the establishment.

As columnist Zohra Yousuf wrote in Dawn recently, the media had more freedom under General Zia than it does now. Many commentators argue that in 1980s, military dictator Zia-ul-Haq kept the press on a tight leash, but unlike today, neither did it lead to off- the-record threats nor enforced disappearances.

As George Bernard Shaw rightly said, “The ultimate form of censorship is assassination.” Sadly, in five years alone (2013-2018), 26 journalists had been killed. Mostly, 2017-2018 were troubling years for journalists and bloggers who paid the price for being critical of states actions and policies.

Gul Buhari, a columnist for The Nation and a commentator on Waqt TV, was picked up in June last year. The house of Marvi Sirmad, a columnist for Daily Times, was burgled by mysterious intruders who were only interested in taking away her laptop and passport.

Back in 2010, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News International, wrote several articles on sensitive topics. One night his car was stopped in Islamabad by men in commando style garb, who blindfolded him and drove him to a house. Cheema recounted later how he was beaten, hung upside down and humiliated. The next morning, he was dumped on a deserted road many miles away.

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Earlier this month, night transmission of three Pakistani private channels went off air allegedly for airing the press talk of former Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari. Media watchdog Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued notices to 21 Pakistani private channels for airing unedited news conference of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz ( PML-N) leader Maryam Nawaz wherein she screened a video footage involving a judge. 

Moreover, Dawn newspaper was time and again targeted. Its distribution was disrupted in many areas, mostly in Balochistan. It’s been two years since the circulation of Dawn and a number of books published in Balochi have been blocked in District Kech, Balochistan.

3G and 4G internet services are suspended in 8 districts of Balochistan for the last two and a half years for reasons best known to the authorities.

Efforts to control the media are not new. Zamir Niazi, a late journalist, details in his book ‘Press in Chains’ how an effort was made to censor a portion of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah’s speech in 1947: ” immediately after the speech was over, the principle information officer Colonel Majid Malik phoned the Dawn office and instructed that the portion relating to citizens’ right and religious beliefs should be omitted from the speech.”

However, in this age of advancement, vast use of social media and news websites at home and abroad, it is not possible to steer the public discourse in Pakistan in one direction. Gone are the days when there was only one state owned television channel that tightly controlled what people were allowed to hear.

Press is one of the essential pillars of democracy, and the government must not suppress it. Freedom of speech is not granted, it has to be earned.

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