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CPJ: Pakistan's Military Curbing Press Freedoms Using Fear, Intimidation

In May, the distribution of Pakistan's oldest newspaper, Dawn, was disrupted across most of the country, shortly after it published a controversial interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The climate for press freedom in Pakistan is deteriorating as the country's powerful army “quietly, but effectively” restricts reporting through "intimidation" and other means, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says in a new report.

The report, released on September 12, says the military is preventing journalists from doing their work by “barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters.

“Journalists who push back or are overly critical of authorities are attacked, threatened, or arrested,” according to the report, which is based on interviews with journalists during a mission to Pakistan this year.

The “deterioration” in the climate for press freedom in Pakistan comes as fewer journalists have been killed in recent years, but the organization says impunity remained entrenched, with the military, intelligence, and military-affiliated political groups suspected in the killings of 22 reporters in the past decade.

“While the decline in the killing of journalists is encouraging, the government needs to counteract pressures that have resulted in rampant self-censorship and threats to the media,” said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the New York-based watchdog.

“Pakistan must address the disturbing trend of impunity and attacks on journalists to shore up this faltering pillar of democracy,” he added.

According to the report, the military, which plays an unusually prominent role in the South Asian nation’s domestic and foreign affairs, has used its battle against terrorism as a pretext to pressure the media..

Geo journalist Hamid Mir points to where a bomb was found underneath his car in Islamabad in November 2012.
Geo journalist Hamid Mir points to where a bomb was found underneath his car in Islamabad in November 2012.

The CPJ said it was told by the journalists that the media has been “under siege” since 2014, when the attempted murder of Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir “led to a fallout among media groups and with the military.”

That year, the Pakistani Taliban also carried out an attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar that left 150 people dead, prompting a military crackdown on militancy. With high-profile attacks on reporters, the CPJ quoted journalists as saying that they are “often forced to play it safe by toning down or avoiding controversial but newsworthy stories.”

“Privately, senior editors and journalists say that conditions for the free press are as bad as when the country was under military dictatorship, and journalists were flogged and newspapers forced to close,” says the CPJ report.

Pakistan's military has ruled for approximately half the period since the country’s independence in 1947, staging coups three times.

The Pakistani media have come under unprecedented pressure in recent months from the all-powerful army but also hard-line religious groups and militant organizations.

In May, the distribution of Pakistan's oldest newspaper, Dawn, was disrupted across most of the country. The disruption came days after Dawn published an interview with ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in which he criticized the army and alleged it was backing militants who carried out the deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

In April, Geo TV, part of Pakistan's largest commercial media group, Jang, was taken off the air in many parts of the country. The ban ended a month later after talks between the military and the network's chiefs.

Meanwhile, prominent Pakistani columnists have had their writing on sensitive topics rejected by news outlets, without explanation.

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui
Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui

Prominent Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui left Pakistan in January, shortly after armed men beat, threatened, and attempted to kidnap him in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad.

Siddiqui is known in his homeland for his critical reporting on the military.

Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist and assistant editor at Dawn, was barred from leaving the country in 2016 shortly after he wrote an article about a rift between the government and the military. He left for New York when the government order was lifted weeks later.

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan 139th out of 180 countries in its 2018 press freedom index.