On Monday this week, three major Pakistani news channels were airing an interview with jailed ex-president Nawaz Sharif, when they were suspended for between six to eight hours. The suspension has been heavily criticized by media watchdogs, but it is only the latest example of censorship in Pakistan. Over the past several years, both televised and printed media have suffered from constant irregularities, while journalists frequently “self-censor” in order to avoid the attention of the military. Not only does this incident raise concerns about media freedoms in the country, but also the safety of journalists, and the tendency of the military—and increasingly, the government—to silence criticism.
The government has defended the suspension, with Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood claiming that “We have a new practice here now where a person who has been convicted for corruption … and gives interviews on media. This doesn’t happen in any democracy.” As a result of this “practice,” the Pakistan cabinet recently ordered media regulators to prohibit press conferences with politicians who have either been jailed or were under investigation. Accordingly, the three channels that aired the interview with Sharif were suspended.
However, the government’s intervention in the media sets a dangerous precedent for the future of media freedoms in Pakistan. Sadaf Khan, Director of Media Matters for Democracy (MMFD), has made several statements about the dangers of censorship, particularly that which originates from the government. ”Such overt attacks on press freedoms are against the very nature of democratic discourse and stand to harm political processes in the country,” she said in a statement for MMFD, after a similar incident on July 2nd.
The government’s suspension of the broadcast is deeply disturbing and signals a silencing of political opposition. Such intervention in the press contravenes democratic values and norms. The increasing restrictions placed on media freedoms by the government brings into question the direction of democracy in Pakistan. Currently, there are few solutions to censorship in the country. Pakistan officials are unwilling to consider suggestions made by organizations such as MMFD. The influence of the military on the government, traditionally opposed to the media, complicates and further entrenches censorship. For any headway to be made in media freedoms, the military must relinquish control of the media, and the government must uphold media freedoms.
Since 2014, the military has exerted incredible control over the nation’s media. The military restricts reporting through the use of intimidation tactics, such as killing and abducting journalists that were too vocal on sensitive topics; particularly those viewed to be oppositional to state interests. An example of this occurred late last year when a brazen attack left journalist, Ahmad Noorani, nearly dead. Noorani was known to report on topics such as the military and religion. The use of such tactics have declined in recent months, and yet, despite this, both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have released reports that detail a decline in media freedoms and journalist safety in the country. Pakistan has dropped from being rated 139 out of 180 countries in 2018 for media freedoms, to 142 this year as ranked by the RSF. Recent censorship by the government indicates a further entrenching of the lack of freedom in Pakistan.
The recent act of censoring three major televised media outlets for several hours is indicative of a concerning new trend in Pakistan. While censorship has become “less deadly” in that fewer journalists are being killed for their opinions, it seems that the government has begun to legitimize censorship in such a way that contravenes democratic values, particularly those of media freedoms. Sadaf Khan of MMFD puts it bluntly, “Now, the number of targeted attacks is coming down but the way dissent is being targeted through legal instruments that are far more dangerous.” Indeed if such censorship continues as it has, the media and the people of Pakistan will suffer, as the government controls what are and what are not appropriate to consume.