On August 5th, 2023 Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was arrested for the second time, after being sentenced to a three-year jail term for alleged corruption. His earlier arrest on May 9th, 2023 provoked protests of scale described by the government officials as ‘Pakistan’s 9/11’. No significant manifestations have however been reported to have happened since Mr Khan has been imprisoned for the second time. It is not due to lack of support for him, but rather because of a government media crackdown on the coverage of Mr Khan and persecution of his supporters.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) has defended the crackdown as necessary to ensure the safety of Pakistani citizens. “It is indeed a fact, such hate mongers, representing political outfits are abusing power against the Federation of Pakistan and state institutions by polluting innocent minds of public.” It said in an issued directive. “All such anti-state activities were orchestrated by the politically charged-up zealots of political party behaving largely as hate mongers to instigate stock political activists as well”, it added. Despite the often violent attempts at suppression, some members of the media have spoken up about the censorship they have been facing since May. “It is farcical.” A TV personality that chose to remain anonymous told BBC. “When you arrive, they ask you not to talk about the establishment’s interference in politics as they worry this will get them into trouble. Even if you mention his name, because of the time delay they will just bleep you out. It’s just an environment of fear, it’s like we are living under martial law.”
The Pakistani parliament was dissolved after August 5th, 2023 and called for immediate elections. Many among Mr Khan’s supporters have since May declared the wish to still vote for him and his party, Pakistan Tehreek – e – Insaf (PTI), regardless of the conviction. Since his second arrest, Mr Khan has, however, been banned from holding office for the next five years, a decision he has already declared he will appeal against. Though the deck might be stacked against them, it will be important for PTI supporters to rely on the democratic process and cast their ballots wisely, be it on PTI without Imran Khan or another party they trust to carry out a similar agenda. They cannot trust the censored media to adequately carry their voices, but that won’t extend to the ballot box.
The impact of the 9th of May riots in Pakistan cannot be overestimated. Tens of thousands of protesters were arrested following a number of violent incidents, including setting fire to the Radio Pakistan building and injuring over 190 policemen. Multiple PTI-aligned protesters were killed by the police after the government chose to use anti-terrorism legislation that allowed them to employ usually prohibited means of dealing with the protesters. Since then, many PTI leaders have resigned, with remaining party members being pressured out of the government. The press has been ordered to stop mentioning Mr Khan by name and to treat antimilitary PTI supporters as terrorists, with many journalists reporting to have received anonymous threats if they don’t adhere to the new policy.
The situation in Pakistan is not a black and white one. If one were to view 9th of May protests as acts of terrorism, the government’s position becomes understandable, perhaps even understated. If, on the other hand, one were to believe PTI’s claims of the most extreme acts being fabricated by the military and as such the manifestations being acts of public speech, the crackdown obviously becomes morally indefensible. Regardless of the validity of Mr Khan’s sentence and, for that matter, the motivations behind the 9th of May, one thing is however clear. Violence, or threats of such, against journalists is something that no democratic state should be able to enact without consequences and, on their very own, should make us doubtful of the government’s good will.
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