Pakistan has imposed a complete ban on the broadcasting of speeches and news conferences by populist former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and swiftly suspended a mainstream satellite television channel for defying the order.
The curbs, imposed late Sunday, were swiftly condemned as an assault on the country's freedom of speech and independent media. Critics demanded that the government removes them.
State-run Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordered all satellite television channels to stop showing Khan’s “live and recorded” speeches and media talks immediately, warning that violators will have their licenses canceled.
The ban came hours after Khan, 70, addressed supporters of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party outside his residence in the eastern city of Lahore and alleged corruption against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
In Sunday’s live televised remarks, the cricket-star-turned-politician again accused Pakistan’s powerful military and its recently retired chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, of protecting incumbent rulers in alleged corruption cases. He also accused an unnamed officer of the country’s spy agency of unleashing a crackdown on PTI leaders and social media activists.
The media regulator claimed in its directive that Khan was "leveling baseless allegations and spreading hate speech through his provocative statements against state institutions and officers.”
Hours later, the authority suspended the license of the ARY News channel for airing clips of Khan’s speech in “willful defiance” of the prohibition order.
PEMRA had previously banned satellite television channels from broadcasting Khan’s live speeches, but a high court outlawed those restrictions as a violation of freedom of speech.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement Sunday it “deplores” the latest decision to ban the PTI chief’s speeches.
“We have always opposed measures to curb voices … and continue to stand by our commitment to freedom of speech, irrespective of the person’s political opinion. The ban must be lifted immediately,” the watchdog stressed.
Mazhar Abbas, a prominent journalist and analyst, criticized the government on Twitter for gagging freedom of expression, calling it a “sad state of affairs.”
Rehab Mahamoor, research assistant for South Asia at Amnesty International, decried the bans, saying criticism of state institutions cannot be considered as hate speech.
“The blanket ban on an opposition leader’s speeches and the suspension of ARY News is a disturbing demonstration of how successive Pakistani authorities target critical voices and use the country’s media regulatory authority to threaten press freedom,” Mahamoor said.
“The Pakistani authorities must withdraw any blanket bans and stop cracking down on journalists and media houses that publish content critical of the government.”
Khan’s speech on Sunday came hours after police tried to serve him with arrest warrants to ensure his appearance in court on Tuesday on charges that he unlawfully sold state gifts he received from foreign dignitaries while serving as prime minister.
A police statement later said they were unable to serve the arrest warrants on Khan because his aides told them he was not at home.
Pakistan’s election commission recently found Khan guilty of selling the gifts, prompting the Federal Investigation Agency to file charges against him and issue the arrest warrants.
The opposition politician, popular among Pakistani youth and urban voters, rejects the charges as politically motivated and part of the Sharif administration’s alleged drive to victimize the opposition.
Khan has been demanding the government announce early elections since a parliamentary no-confidence vote toppled his nearly four-year-old government last April. Sharif, the then-opposition leader, succeeded Khan and cobbled together a coalition government of about a dozen political parties.
Sharif has rejected calls for a snap vote, saying it will be held later this year when parliament completes its mandatory five-year term.
Khan has led massive countrywide protest rallies to push for his demands. He was shot at and wounded while leading a rally last November. He accused Sharif and his administration of plotting to kill him, charges the government rejected.
On Sunday, the former prime minister defended his absence from court, saying authorities did not provide adequate security during his multiple court appearances in the capital, Islamabad, last week. He again denied any wrongdoing and dismissed as fake dozens of lawsuits the government has launched against him since his ouster.
Khan later wrote a letter to Pakistan’s chief justice on Sunday, saying that “in view of severe threats to my life” he should be allowed to attend court hearings via a video link.
“I have and continue to maintain that the present pm, interior minister and a senior intelligence agency officer were involved in the failed assassination plot. …There are clear indications of another assassination attempt being plotted on my life,” he said, without elaborating.
There was no immediate reaction to the letter from the court, and the government again rejected Khan’s claims as baseless.
Until now, most Pakistani satellite channels would mute parts of Khan’s speeches where he would criticize Bajwa and other military officers for their roles in removing him from office and for their continued involvement in national politics.
Days before he stepped down from office after an extended six-year term last November, Bajwa acknowledged the military had been meddling in national politics for decades but decided in 2021 to end the “unconstitutional” practice. It was a rare admission, but Bajwa’s claims of ending the interference have been met with deep suspicions and skepticism by Khan’s party, as well as independent critics of the military.
Pakistan’s military has staged several coups against elected governments, ruling the country for nearly half of its 75 years of existence. The institution is deeply involved in commercial and business activities in breach of the constitution, but those who question the activity often face pressures and are dubbed traitors by pro-military media outlets, say Pakistani politicians and journalists.
The deepening political tensions come as Sharif struggles to persuade the International Monetary Fund to resume crucial lending to Pakistan to avert a looming default on foreign debts.