In the end of July, amidst much fanfare, Prime Minister Imran Khan returned to Islamabad after a 3-day visit to Washington, DC. Despite landing at 2 am, Khan had his senior cabinet and party members present to shower him with garlands and rose petals. Speaking to his ardent followers who had gathered in the arrival lounge, Khan proudly proclaimed that he felt as if he won the World Cup all over again. While the aesthetics gave a feeling that Khan actually won the crown, in reality, he came back without much substance and was constantly hounded at all public events about the harsh restrictions his government has placed on the media in Pakistan.
In a rambling press conference with President Trump inside the Oval Office, Khan was pointedly asked about the curbs placed on the media in Pakistan. Getting a chuckle from President Trump, Khan boldly declared “Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world…to say there are curbs on Pakistan’s press is a joke.” After his meeting with Trump, Imran Khan headlined an event at the United States Institute of Peace. When asked about the censorship and harassment of the press, Imran Khan audaciously claimed “Pakistan’s media is even freer than the British media…there is no question in Pakistan on ever clamping down on the media.” Undeterred, Khan further argued that the media must be controlled and the government watchdog should be strengthened to monitor content.
Imran Khan may have claimed in the United States that Pakistan’s media is absolutely free and independent, but the reality is far from this fallacy. Khan’s government has been enforcing unprecedented restrictions on the media in Pakistan since coming to power last year. Under the watchful eye of the hyperactive miltablishment, the current civilian and military rulers have ushered in a new era of media management. While the civilian government utilizes the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to silence media houses, anchorpersons and journalists by sending them legal notices, the miltablishment utilizes the popular messenger service, WhatsApp, to impose directives. Military officers have been known to ring up journalists and media owners in the middle of the night, threatening them to alter media content and have it edited to their liking.
A leading news channel attempted to broadcast an interview of Asif Ali Zardari, a former president and co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, a leading opposition party that has formed the provincial government in Sindh. In a tactical move, the channel broadcasted the first few minutes of the interview, and then abruptly took the interview off-air. This maneuver not only allowed the viewer to see Asif Zardari being interviewed, but the hasty cut in broadcast emphasized the fact that the channel was forced to go off-air. In a tweet to his followers, Hamid Mir (anchorperson of the program), apologized to his viewers and wrote, “those who stopped it [the interview] have no courage to accept publicly that they stopped it.”
Last month, PML-N Leader Maryam Nawaz held a bombshell press conference where she alleged that the judge who convicted her father and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was compromised. Maryam Nawaz further claimed that the judge was coerced to deliver a guilty verdict against Nawaz Sharif and submitting video evidence, she demanded that her father be released from jail immediately. That night, PEMRA issued notices to 21 TV channels for the “unedited live telecast” of Maryam Nawaz’s explosive media talk. Two days after the press conference, the federal cabinet instructed PEMRA to “discourage the use of media for promotion of convicted persons’ narrative”. The regulatory body used this is a pretense to disallow any TV channel from broadcasting any future press conference, interview or public rally of Maryam Nawaz.
Not only are public rallies and interviews of political leaders blacked out, but leading journalists have been strictly ordered to pre-record their programs to ensure that content not suitable to the regime is broadcasted. Today, without any legal notice served, a private TV channel was forced to off-air the program of leading journalist Najam Sethi. Journalists have been pursued to a point where they have been pressurized to close down their twitter accounts in order to stop public rebuking of the PTI government. Newspapers have seen their distribution curtailed after criticizing the government. Recently, a demonstration was held by a union of journalists to protest the clamping down on the media space. Calls were immediately made to ensure that no cameras would be sent by TV channels cover the event.
The censoring and harassment of the media by the current regime Pakistan is rather ironic given the fact that when in the opposition, Imran Khan and the miltablishment fully exploited the media space. Nawaz Sharif was barely into his third-term as prime minister when Khan besieged Islamabad by sitting atop a container in the red-zone and demanded Sharif’s resignation. Khan received non-stop live coverage for his 126-day sit-in. On many occasions, Khan himself has acknowledged that it was due to the electronic and social media in Pakistan, which gave him the political capital to secure the prime minister house. Unfortunate that once in power, Khan has sought ways to block and shut down social media sites to avoid criticism of his fledgling government. Pakistan’s military leadership has put all its eggs in the PTI basket and is working tirelessly, at home and abroad, to ensure that Imran Khan faces no impediments. The top leadership of opposition parties have already been put behind bars and placed in jails on un-proven charges.
In today’s world where every day, over one billion hours of videos are watched on YouTube, more than 2.1 billion people use Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp and over 500 million tweets being tweeted, the rulers of Pakistan should accept that censoring and harassing the media is not a battle they can win. Silencing dissenters and political rivals will do the civilian and military leadership no good. At a time where the country is suffering border tensions on both sides, severe economic crises- high inflation, slow economic activity, increased utility tariffs and record-high foreign exchange rates, it would be wise for the government to find viable solutions rather than create more hurdles for themselves.
In a recent meeting, Imran Khan had an attendance with the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa, Director General ISI, General Faiz Hameed and Director General ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor. One can only hope that they advised each other to focus more on governing and working towards strengthening the economy rather than having a dictatorial approach towards the media and opposition. In a now iconic photograph, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf is seen patting his brow as he faced the media in his final days of power. Imran Khan and the top brass would be wise to remember the photograph, realizing the pen will always be mightier than the sword.