Umar Cheema experienced the latest brand of Pakistani media suppression firsthand.
Cheema, a prominent investigative reporter, works for national newspaper The News and has 1.1 million Twitter followers.
This year in July, after he posted some tweets critical of the Pakistan government and military, his managers received calls pressuring them to respond. In Pakistan, such calls typically originate with the military. Cheema was forced to take down his Twitter account for a week.
Journalists in Pakistan have long been at the mercy of the country’s powerful military and rulers. But Cheema and others say what’s happening under Prime Minister Imran Khan might not be as brutal as the suppression of previous governments, but it's far more insidious and pervasive.
“In the past, the military had picked up journalists, beaten them up or would make threatening calls,” Cheema told VOA. “They have become more sophisticated.”
The censors are wielding a broad arsenal of punishing tools – from shutting down cable channels, cutting off government advertising, intimidating media owners and unleashing an army of social media attack trolls.
Moreover, critics say Khan’s government and the military are in lockstep, making matters worse than past periods of military martial law.
“At least then we were in a position to publicly say we are not allowed to publish the whole truth,” said Zaffar Abbas, editor of Dawn, a paper that has won acclaim for standing up to censors.
“Now, the bulk of the media is churning out lies and half-truths, and we can’t even complain as most of the owners have surrendered to these demands,” Abbas said.
What Cheema experienced reflects the gradual unspooling of media freedom in Pakistan, a country of critical strategic importance to the U.S. by a leader who can be as dismissive of the media as President Donald Trump and his attacks on “fake news.”
At an appearance with Trump during his July visit to the White House, Khan scoffed at the notion of media censorship in Pakistan, calling it “a joke.” The two laughed about who got the least-favorable treatment. “It’s worse than you,” Khan told Trump.
Indeed, some Pakistani journalists who side with Khan’s nationalistic politics say concerns about media control are exaggerated. “I think we are Pakistani first and then journalists,” said Amir Zia, news director at Hum News, a TV station in Islamabad. “The press here is absolutely free, and with comparison to the past, we have moved very forward.”
In interviews with VOA this August, however, an overwhelming majority of Pakistani reporters, editors, media owners and analysts said censorship has worsened since Khan came to power in 2018 in what was a watershed victory over two legacy political parties.
Four times since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the military has taken power, and U.S. congressional researchers said in June that most analysts see the military as maintaining a “dominant” influence under the Khan government.
Pakistan has fallen in global media and speech freedom indexes but is still considered partly free. The country has a robust media tradition that persists despite the suppression.
Recently, talk surfaced about creating special courts to hear complaints and disputes in the broadcast sector. But journalism groups fear such a move will burden media houses under tons of litigation and could be used as a tool to keep them in line.
Hamid Mir is a political talk show host at Pakistan’s leading television channel, Geo News, and an author and a rights activist. He called Khan’s assertion at the White House that Pakistan’s media is among the freest in the world “categorically false.”
“Imran Khan can make such sweeping claims about journalistic freedoms here only while being in the U.S.,” Mir said. “President Trump can criticize the news channels he dislikes, but in Pakistan, the prime minister can not only shut down such outlets but encumber them with false allegations absent the rule of law.”
“He wouldn’t even admit to pressuring the media – in this way, he’s even stronger than Trump when it comes to curbing a free press,” Mir said.
From more to less space
In its 72 years, Pakistanis have lived through more than three decades of military rule. Liberalization of news media had begun under the last military leader, General Pervez Musharaff. The launch of privately owned Geo TV in 2002 marked a turning point.
“After the martial law regime (Musharaff) was dismissed, there was a revolution in the media industry of Pakistan, and we were under the impression that it would create more space,” said Ahmed Waleed, Lahore bureau chief for Samaa TV, a privately owned channel.
“There have been restrictions on the media during dictatorships,” Waleed said, “but it was more difficult to control a live medium such as television. Many TV channels were able to raise their voice and discussed several political and security issues despite strict restrictions imposed by politicians and security agencies.”
But journalists say the tide has shifted markedly. The government and military now share the view that media should support the official narrative prescribed by the state – and not criticize it under the banner of national interest.
“There was pressure before, but is has multiplied several times now,” Waleed said. “The prime minister is being advised to control the media, and his ministers have issued similar statements. Then, they have a strong following on social media and their followers troll journalists who criticize them.”
The mentality is reflected in top-trending hashtags such as #ArrestAntiPakJournalist or #JournalismNotAgenda used by online nationalist vigilantes to attack critical journalists.
Cheema received an International Press Freedom Award in 2011 from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the U.S. advocacy group. He had been abducted, tortured, stripped naked and his head and eyebrows shaved after stories reporting that the Pakistani military and the ISI operated outside the law.
Cheema maintains he was targeted by Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has long faced accusations of kidnapping and intimidating journalists and activists. The agency denies the allegations.
These days, Cheema said, the stakes are just as high, but the means of control are more varied.
"Initially, they would threaten cable operators to shut down the transmission of any TV channel, but now they are using a new weapon, which is to create a financial crisis by cutting down government ads to channels who are not toeing government’s line," Cheema said.
"They come after us by intimidating media owners. They unleash a team of trolls on you on Twitter. They are converging our interest because if the news organization shuts down, how will I be able to do my journalism or run my house expenditures?"
Red-lining the news
Cheema said he knew of several news organizations where journalists haven’t been paid for months. The tremendous financial pressure forces self-censorship.
"In terms of what we can cover and what we can’t – red lines have increased every passing day in the past two years. Initially, we realized that red lines are redefined, but now the tickers on TV are being controlled not by the newsrooms but somewhere else."
Common "red lines" involve reporting on missing persons, conflict in separatist-ridden Balochistan province and allegations of human rights abuses by the military.
Some contend that Pakistan is not alone in setting boundaries.
“If you go to the U.K. or the U.S.A., when they give a license of any TV channel or of any newspaper, they tell you about the laws and about some red lines which you cannot pass,” said Sabir Shakir, an anchor with ARY News in Islamabad.
Waleed said Khan, soon after taking power, began using financial pressure to enforce red lines. “Imran Khan’s ministers stated that the electronic and print media should change their business model,” Waleed said, “and then the government stopped all due payments of the state-run ads worth around Rs10 billion ($63.8 million).”
“As a result there was around 30 to 40 percent reduction in revenue leading to financial issues and the survival of the media,” Waleed said. That put “immense pressure” on private channels, he said.
Pakistan’s media regulatory authority, known as PEMRA, goes to court when it believes programming violates national security. “Then they issue notices to TV channels that they committed certain violations and impose heavy fines on them,” Waleed said.
Now, self-censorship is the new normal, multiple journalists said. Pakistan also has on several occasions temporarily banned broadcasts by international broadcasters like BBC and VOA Urdu news for crossing red lines.
Fade the opposition to black
Journalists cited several instances where the state simply switched off TV news reports or channels.
In early July, an interview by Hamid Mir at Geo News of former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was taken off air within minutes of broadcasting.
Zardari, who served as the president from 2008-2013, is battling fresh money-laundering charges.The government said Mir shouldn’t have had access to Zardari, who was interviewed at Parliament while on temporary release from prison. Mir maintains the blackout was a part of a government pattern of muzzling opponents.
A few days before that episode, an interview with Maryam Nawaz Sharif, political heiress and daughter to three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was also cut off.
Nawaz Sharif, who was Khan’s immediate predecessor, is currently imprisoned and facing numerous corruption charges that he and his family deny and say are politically motivated. The host of the show at Hum News, Nadeem Malik, said on Twitter that the live interview with Sharif's daughter, who has taken up his cause as an opposition leader, was “forcefully” taken off-air minutes after it started.
Also in July, three Pakistani news channels were taken off-air after they broadcast a news conference by Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Although authorities claimed the channels were down due to "technical reasons," the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said they had been blocked by PEMRA without any notification.
Sharif was taken into custody in August after she held several large political rallies criticizing the government and military. She remains in jail.
In July 2018, Sharif had been fined and sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption charges, but in September of that year the Islamabad High Court suspended her sentence.
“Maryam Nawaz was freed on order of the court, and the former president is an accused, not a convict," Mir said. "There’s no law in Pakistan which deprives either of them the right to voice their views on TV. No government body wrote to us informing what laws the interview was skirting. We received nothing in writing.”
Mir knows something about government pressure.
In 2014, he barely escaped an assassination attempt following a series of programs in which he criticized the military for meddling in foreign policy and for their operations in Balochistan province – where dissenters have gone missing without a trace.
“When the former president’s interview was cut short, I did reach out to the owners of my TV channel,” Mir said. “They were succinct in their rejection, saying there was too much pressure and they had to yield, after which they hung up.”
The censorship has a cost.
“Things from the margins are not reported. Former tribal areas, political crises in Kyber Pakhtoonkhwa, unrest in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, and even Pakistani-administered Kashmir are lost in some information black hole,” said Mohammad Hanif, a British-Pakistani journalist who writes for The New York Times.
“Voices from these areas are not allowed to go on-air as even the mainstream opposition politicians are not allowed to have their say on media,” he said. “So increasingly, we are getting information that is being sanctioned by the deep state, or comes with a heavy-handed spin.”
Media officials told VOA that the military recently has moved to quash news about the Pashtun rights movement known as PTM. The movement sprung up in in the war-torn tribal areas along the Afghan border. Its leaders have criticized the military for allegedly harboring the Pakistani Taliban and mistreating locals.
Last December, VOA Urdu’s website was blocked in Pakistan after covering a news conference by PTM’s leader Mohsin Dawar.
In an interview with VOA, Pakistan military spokesperson Major Gen. Asif Ghafoor denied any military involvement in curbing press freedom in Pakistan.
“How can army control a media which is so powerful?” he asked. “There is so much happening in the country. We have been in a war-like situation, as the prime minister of Pakistan has said during his U.S. visit.”
Ghafoor also disputed allegations that the military uses social media trolls to go after journalists. “How can I have such a big team of people for social media use? These are Pakistanis who are in favor of Pakistan military, and it’s their right of speech,” he said.
Furor over an exposé
If the increasing pressure on news media can be traced to one story, it would have to be the one known as “Dawn Leaks,”
published before Khan became prime minister.
On October 6, 2016, Cyril Almeida, an editor and columnist at the newspaper Dawn, exposed confidential minutes of a meeting between the government and military officials about Pakistan’s failure to aggressively move against terrorists.
In one exchange, the leader of Pakistan’s largest province accused the military and intelligence service of freeing internationally designated terrorists after they’d been arrested by civilian security forces.
Almeida’s report sparked a firestorm. While denouncing the story as inaccurate, the government fired its information minister. The military demanded a leak investigation.
Dawn came under brutal attack.
“A vicious media campaign, even calls for prosecuting the reporter and editor for treason, with one news anchor constantly reminding that its punishment is death,” Dawn Editor Abbas said. “Social media was used in a big way in an attempt to brand us as anti-state.”
In another May 2018 report, Dawn published an interview with former Prime Minister Sharif in which he complained about the slow pace of trials for Pakistanis behind the terror attacks that killed some 160 people in Mumbai over four days in 2008. In comments seen as controversial, Sharif wondered why Pakistan could have allowed the militants to cross its border.
Authorities blocked Dawn from distributing the paper at military institutions and many towns and cities.
Dawn’s editor, Abbas, said some parts of the country are still out of bounds. It’s another way censorship is exerted, he said.
”Officially, there’s no censorship, but large section of the media, if not being totally controlled, is being greatly influenced to churn out just one narrative, i.e., a pro-Pakistan narrative — nothing else is kosher or acceptable,” he said.
Dawn’s situation hasn’t gone unnoticed outside Pakistan. Almeida was named 2019 World Press Hero by the International Press Institute. Abbas earned the 2019 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders also nominated Dawn for its 2019 Independence award. “The country’s oldest daily newspaper is the only one that continues to resist military rule,” RSF said.
But inside Pakistan, the atmosphere is stifling.
“As a journalist, if you do not toe the line you are out of job,” Mohammad Hanif said. “As a media owner if you defy the powers-that-be, then your channel is off-air, advertisers are pressured, your rivals are being used to portray you as anti-state.”