Open secret: Censorship in Pakistan

Pakistani journalists stage a demonstration during a 2011 protest in Karachi against the killing of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad.
Rizwan Tabassum / AFP / Getty Images

KARACHI, Pakistan — When Pakistani readers of the International New York Times opened the front page of the newspaper on March 22, they were confronted with an odd sight: more than a quarter of the page was blank. The e-paper filled in the missing bits: excerpts from Times reporter Carlotta Gall’s new book detailing the relationship between the Pakistani state and militant Islamist outfits, which the government preferred to keep hidden. Two months later, it happened again when an opinion piece on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws was blanked out.

The big white spaces are less conspicuous than the violent attacks that journalists in Pakistan have repeatedly suffered. (The most recent was in April, when Geo TV journalist Hamid Mir was injured in a gun attack as he was exiting the Karachi airport.) Both, however, point to the muzzling of media outlets, which have come under attack from many factions, including Islamist militants, political parties, commercial interests and the state itself.

According to a recent Amnesty International report, 34 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2008, when a democratic government returned to power. In only one case have the killers been convicted: Wali Khan Babar, a correspondent who also worked for Geo TV, was killed in January 2011 by suspected members of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a dominant, Karachi-based political party. Six men were convicted in March. Four received life sentences, and the other two, tried in absentia, were sentenced to death. The party denies having anything to do with the murder.

In an “overwhelming majority of cases,” the Amnesty report finds, “the Pakistani authorities failed to carry out prompt, impartial, independent and thorough investigations into human rights abuses against journalists, or to bring those responsible to justice.” The perpetrators vary, from the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s powerful intelligence agency; the MQM; and a range of militant outfits, including the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Al Qaida-linked groups.

In the early ’90s, Pakistan had only one state-owned TV channel, which delivered the news at 9 p.m. every day. In 2002, then President Pervez Musharraf loosened regulations, allowing private ownership of media outlets. Now, the country has 89 privately owned TV channels and 115 FM radio stations. While radio reaches more Pakistanis than any other medium, television tends to be more influential in shaping political discourse. Most newspapers are written in regional languages, but the Urdu ones have a high circulation, despite the fact that nearly half of Pakistan’s 180 million people are illiterate. While English-language papers do not have a high readership across the country, they are influential because they cater to Pakistan’s educated elite. One of the most prominent media conglomerates is the Jang Group, which owns several Urdu- and English-language newspapers and Geo TV. 

Pakistani TV journalist Hamid Mir, who survived an April attack by gunmen in Karachi, is surrounded by journalists as he leaves the Supreme Court in a wheelchair after his appearance before the judicial commission in Islamabad on May 19.
Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

Despite the recent gains in media freedom, the state, and especially the ISI, keeps tight control over what is printed.

Hamid Mir made an official statement about the threats he had received from “rogue elements” within the ISI. He cited his coverage of the killings of Baloch separatists, who have been fighting a low-intensity insurgency with the state for decades, as the reason he was made a target. Immediately after the attack, Geo TV, a privately owned channel, aired his suspicions about his attackers, accusing the ISI of the assault. For a few hours, the picture of Zaheerul Islam, the agency’s furtive chief, was ever-present in Geo’s coverage. The ISI’s response was swift. It filed a complaint against the network with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA), and the Jang Group was fined, forced to issue an apology and its channel was blocked for two weeks. Yet even while the case was still pending, some cable operators preemptively took Geo TV off the air, citing government pressure.

“This sets a very dangerous precedent and opens the door for future attempts to shut down news channels that are critical of the state and its agencies,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in an open letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

“It was the first time Geo took Pakistan’s spy agency’s name openly on TV — but it has been taught a lesson,” said Taha Siddiqui, an independent TV journalist. “As we see, it issued an apology and yet is facing shutdown.” While the case is over, Geo continues to face pressure from both the state and other media companies that smell blood. In May, Mubashir Lucman, an anchor for a rival TV station, accused the channel of blasphemy for televising the wedding of an actress in which musicians were playing a religious song. 

In Pakistan, no matter what the political rivalries are, the ISI is always at the top. In a recent story I wrote, I was asked to not name the ISI; the name was basically cut out and I was asked to just write ‘agencies.’

A copy editor who did not wish to be named

The Express Tribune

The ISI is also widely suspected in the 2011 death of Saleem Shahzad, a freelance journalist who, just days before being abducted, published a story about the alleged infiltration of the armed forces by Islamist militants, much to the army’s chagrin. He was kidnapped in a heavily guarded neighborhood in Islamabad, the capital, and was found by a ditch on the outskirts of the city two days later, bearing torture marks. A high-level judicial investigation was inconclusive. But before his disappearance, he discussed his fears and the agency’s attempts to reach him with Human Rights Watch, saying that he had received a murder threat.

“In Pakistan, no matter what the political rivalries are, the ISI is always at the top,” said a copy editor at the English-language newspaper The Express Tribune, who did not wish to be named for fear of losing her job. (Disclaimer: The author of this article also works at The Express Tribune.) “In a recent story I wrote, I was asked to not name the ISI; the name was basically cut out and I was asked to just write ‘agencies.’ ”

Criticism of the Pakistan army is only one “invisible red line” out of many, said Shoaib Hasan, a former BBC correspondent. “Others include the nationalist insurgency in the southwestern province of Balochistan and the state’s covert backing of Islamist militants.”

Balochistan has been a particularly sore point for the military, which has been implicated in kidnappings and extrajudicial executions of Baloch residents whom it suspects of being insurgents. In response, many relatives of missing persons have held protests against the government. Last October, the members of Voice of Missing Baloch Persons (VBMP), an organization that pressures the government to release information about abducted citizens, walked from Quetta, the regional capital of Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan, to the nation’s capital in the north to raise awareness of the issue. The protesters were frequently harassed and threatened by government officials on their march to Islamabad. 

“When the VBMP long march reached Islamabad, we were told it will not be covered or will only be covered in the local edition,” said the Tribune copy editor. When the marchers arrived in the capital, Dawn, the country’s most widely read English-language newspaper, was one of the few to cover the story on its front page. The Tribune ran a two-column story without a picture on Page 4. The News, an English-language daily also owned by Jang, didn’t run the story, but alluded to it in a different article about “[l]eft-wing Pakistani activists” in London protesting in solidarity with the marchers; the piece was 120 words long. It was left to international channels Al Jazeera and the BBC to do more in-depth coverage. Many of those interviewed suspect that the ISI attacked Hamid Mir because of his coverage of the march, which included an interview with the leader of the march, Mama Qadeer Baloch.

I said to the editor, ‘What am I to do, start writing about cooking or films?’ Because that’s all that’s left.

Ayesha Siddiqa

Political journalist and author

And it’s not just what is reported but how it’s reported that is a source of tension. While doing an investigative story about the nationalist movement in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir for a local paper, TV journalist Siddiqui said, his editor told him that “the story could not contain the words ‘Pakistan-occupied’ or even ‘Pakistan-administered’ Kashmir. Instead it would go as ‘Azad Kashmir,’ which literally means ‘independent Kashmir,’ when in reality it’s not so.”

Zarrar Khuhro, magazine editor at Dawn, said that the “decline of the power of the state” has prompted many nonstate actors — euphemistically referred to in the press as namaloom afraad, or unidentified persons — to bully the media as well. Journalists call out political parties for their coercive tactics. According to Hasan, the former BBC correspondent, newspapers were intimidated with veiled threats into covering speeches by MQM head Altaf Hussain and Shahi Syed, a regional leader of the Awami National Party.

Islamist militant groups also use pressure tactics: a Guardian report from February detailed exactly how editorial policy at the Tribune changed in the wake of multiple attacks on its building and offices, at least one of which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and its affiliate Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Armed men, who still have not been identified, threw explosives and fired indiscriminately at the paper’s offices in August 2013 and then again in December. Three staffers were killed in another attack in January, also claimed by the TTP.

In March, Raza Rumi, an Express News anchor known for his liberal views, was shot by armed men on motorcycles as he left the television studio in Lahore, allegedly for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have consistently been used to target religious minorities. While he survived, his driver did not. Rumi has since fled the country. In an email interview, he wrote, “The teams that worked with me for my TV shows constantly told me not to speak about [the] blasphemy law and accept it as a fair law. I defied and faced the music, I guess.”

Following the TTP attacks, The Express Tribune clamped down on its criticism of Islamic militants, who had telephoned the channel right after to claim responsibility. According to an email by editor Kamal Siddiqi to senior staff that was leaked to The Guardian, “[N]othing against any militant organization and its allies” should be published. Ayesha Siddiqa, an op-ed contributor to the Tribune and the author of a book on the Pakistani military’s business interests, complained to The Guardian about the lack of freedom in writing about militancy and the state. “I said to the editor, ‘What am I to do, start writing about cooking or films?’ Because that’s all that’s left.”

Pakistani journalists protest against an attack on television anchor Hamid Mir in Karachi on April 21.
Asif Hassan / AFP / Getty Images

On May 26, a Pakistani-American doctor belonging to the minority Ahmadi community was shot dead by suspected militants in Punjab. Ahmadis are a persecuted community whose members cannot legally call themselves Muslims and have been the subject of many deadly attacks. While the story was featured on the front page of Dawn, it received scant coverage in other newspapers. After a blasphemy charge, the Urdu-language Jang newspaper that along with its English edition, The News, is a part of the broader Jang Group, was already under pressure from religious groups. It buried the story in the inner pages of both editions, with the Urdu one — Pakistan’s mostly widely read newspaper — devoting just one sentence to the story.

Rumi doesn’t blame the media for clamping down. “Let’s face it. Express Group lost at least four workers [in the TTP attacks] who were not even reporters or those who opined. These are brutal and unfair times and media houses have to think of safety when the state is not providing adequate protection.”

Even though the media continue to face restrictions on their reporting, there has been little solidarity among journalists, largely because of deep rivalries between outlets. After the accusations by the Jang Group against the ISI in Mir’s attack, a vicious public dispute erupted in which the media organization’s competitors supported the spy agency in a bid to increase their own market share. Ary News, for instance — which also employs Lucman, the anchor who accused Geo of blasphemy earlier this year — devoted an entire section on its website to what it called the “Geo/ISI controversy.”

At a time when everyone is threatened,  “the media should unite itself and support each other,” Siddiqui said. He also argued that “owner-editor separation” must be institutionalized.

Khuhro added, “Maybe people will realize that stronger editorial stances are required, but I don’t believe it. In all this, the truth has been the first and foremost casualty.”

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