More than 60 leading journalists, op-ed writers and editors of some major newspapers in Pakistan have condemned what they said are “the ongoing curbs on freedom of expression in the country.”
“Beginning with a crackdown against select media groups and banning the broadcast of various channels, there now is enhanced pressure on all media houses to refrain from covering certain rights-based movements,” according to a statement obtained by VOA.
The government of Pakistan has not reacted to the statement issued Wednesday.
The transmission of Pakistan’s most widely watched news channel, Geo, has been blocked in many parts of the country for almost a month. Government officials and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, PEMRA, insist they have not blocked the news channel. Instead, PEMRA issued instructions to cable operators earlier this week to restore Geo to normal distribution or face suspension of their licenses.
The statement also says that media managers, who feel under pressure, are dropping regular op-ed columns and removing online editions of published articles. Wajahat Masood, a well-known columnist associated with Pakistan’s largest daily, Jang, confirmed to VOA that he has been experiencing blocking of his op-ed pieces.
“No formal announcement has been made but unannounced censorship has been in place since 2014. I cannot complain to my newspaper (for not publishing my pieces) as the paper itself has been facing censorship problems for four years now,” Masood said.
Irshad Arif, group editor of Daily 92 News, does not hold newspapers responsible for not publishing certain pieces and says journalists and writers should be aware of their responsibility.
“There is some difference between mainstream media and social media,” he said. “Writers should think before they submit articles to newspapers. When it is published, it is the responsibility of editor and the newspaper. They cannot justify something that is against the constitution, laws or society norms. You cannot justify uncontrolled freedom. It does not happen even in [the] USA and Europe.”
Some subjects off-limits
It’s not just the opinions on op-ed pages that are under pressure. TV channels and some newspapers have also blacked out the coverage of a peaceful movement by ethnic Pashtuns against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Speakers at the rallies of Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) are often critical of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies that are believed to be behind the disappearances.
Journalist Khan Zaman Kakar told VOA that his article “Why PTM Matters” was published in English daily The News but was taken down from their website after a few hours.
“When I inquired over the phone, my editor told me that they have been told to take off the article. The editor told me to write on other topics and not PTM,” Kakar said.
Steve Butler of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls the situation “extremely unfortunate.”
“I think Pakistani people need full access to information to be able to intellectually choose whom they support in the upcoming election,” Butler told VOA.
General elections are to be held this summer in Pakistan. No date has been announced yet. Analysts say that free and fair elections are not possible if private media are under pressure from powerful circles.
Syed Asfar Imam of VOA's Urdu service contributed to this report.