No Country for Free Press


"You may not get credible threats. The perpetrators may skip straight ahead to disappear you": A senior Pakistani journalist tells us why this is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

by Pallavi Pundir; illustrated by Fawaz Dalvi
30 January 2019, 10:30am

Lahore court issues arrest warrant against Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida, places him on no-fly list”—September 25, 2018

Pakistan authorities block distribution of oldest newspaper”—May 18, 2018.

Pakistani Channel Geo TV Goes Off Air, Military Hand Suspected”—April 9, 2018.

It’s telling for a country when one of its key players in its democracy, who is responsible for navigating the political and economic milieu of their country with its headlines, becomes a headline themselves. Media in Pakistan is considered, according to reports, the most vibrant in Asia. And they’re also one of the most vulnerable—“targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organisations and the feared intelligence agencies”.

Historically, press censorship has been a blatant strategy adopted by the Pakistani state, where contents of the news would be sent to the information department for approval. In the recent past, though, the Pakistani media has enjoyed certain freedom in terms of reportage of critical news. “In 2017, the media was able to cover political and legal controversies involving Sharif and his government with relative freedom—particularly English-language outlets whose smaller audiences afforded them more leeway to challenge powerful interests,” notes the 2018 Freedom in the World report published by Freedom House. However, journalists and media watchdogs have observed a subtle but more devious form of intimidation over the last 10 years of its democracy.

A country that scored 139 out of 186 in this year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, and was marked “Not Free” in terms of legal, political, economic and environmental environments, Pakistan continues to worry the community, both homegrown and international. In the most recent case, Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida was given an arrest warning for his published interview with Nawaz Sharif on May 2018, which has been labelled as treasonous—a capital offence.

To understand the brewing turmoil within the Pakistani journalism community, VICE reached out to a senior journalist in Pakistan who, on conditions of anonymity, contextualised the problem of press freedom, revealed the different forms of intimidation, and what lies ahead for press freedom in the state:

VICE: Could you talk about your journey in journalism in Pakistan? How have you, in your more than decade-long stint in the field, seen media freedom change its shape?
ANONYMOUS: It has been an interesting journey [of journalism in Pakistan], particularly given that my career started around the same time that [Pervez] Musharraf was beginning to liberalise media ownership in Pakistan. In 2005 or so, when Musharraf allowed all private television channels to open, you saw a plethora of news channels springing up. The television channels that I joined at that time were kind of in that initial phase, where they were trying to test if an English channel would work in Pakistan, which ultimately didn't, in fact. So, press freedom was at a weird place at the time.

This was also the time when Emergency was imposed. Did that have any impact on the way media coverage was growing?
Musharraf, under the Emergency and military dictatorship, may have liberalised the news sector, but the media was definitely not free. There was certain redlines you know you could not report on, like things to do with security policy, conflict zones, and anything involving the military were definitely off limits. There were ways to do it with coded language and op-ed columns. Any kind of direct reporting, particularly on issues like military corruption or human rights abuses under military operations, were completely no-go areas. You can and continue to say whatever you want about any politician in Pakistan. That’s the measure media freedom is judged against. But I would say something that Bob Dietz at the Committee to Protect Journalists once said to me: The media in Pakistan is vibrant, but we certainly can’t be called free. Freedom here is in a box, and you know that freedom in a box is absolutely no freedom at all.

Have you experienced censorship or any form of restrictions in your 11 years of journalism in the country?
In my time in journalism in Pakistan, I spent eight years with the international press. The international press is pressured and deals with things in different ways [as opposed to the local press]. The way that the international press coverage is controlled is by denying access or by not giving comments for stories. And for foreign journalists, they are often threatened with revoking their visa status, or placing bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult for them to do their jobs.

What does the local media go through?
The local media is—and this is my experience with my colleagues and friends who I have spoken to in the industry—controlled more directly. They will receive a direct phone call saying, ‘do this’ or ‘don't do this’; ‘run this story’, ‘don't run this story’. Or ‘I heard you are working on XYZ; maybe you shouldn't be doing that’. And that goes for a whole gamut of things.

Is there a pattern to this form of intimidation?
Usually, there are about four things that can happen. Firstly, there is a phone call, warning you not to cover things. Then, there is a threat. Then an attack. And after the attack, if you don't change your ways, then you may be killed. This has happened with Saleem Shahzad and others in Pakistan. When you talk about media freedom in Pakistan, we get very focused on the big media companies in the cities. But this is a reality that reporters who are working in areas such as Balochistan, or tribal districts. Journalists get killed there more regularly than one would think or imagine.

Have you ever been told to, sort of, back off?
One of the stories I was working on was an exclusive interview [for an international agency]. It was a video interview that was conducted through couriers. Once I had secured the interview, gone through the tapes and transcribed everything, I went to the military for their version on things. At first, they were taken aback but afterwards, their response was more rooted to the idea of, ‘Well you need to do your patriotic duty instead of running your story.’ And this has happened again and again. I have been told this by the members of the Inter Services Public Relation (ISPR), the press wing of the military, that I have to be a Pakistani first.

Have you ever found yourself succumbing to these coded threats?
I have never not run something because of a warning such as that. You will then get rebuked or denied access the next time you ask for a quote or permissions. They physically control all these [critical] locations, so they control your ability to work and then use that to make journalists report in a particular narrative. People who write what they want will be given free access to these areas and will be told, ‘ Aap bilkul ja sakte hain. Aap kyu nahi jaye; aap sabko batiye how good things are’(Of course you can go. Why not? Tell everyone how good things are here). Things have gotten subsequently better [over the years] but that doesn't mean that they’re stable.

We also read about how the situation is relatively better now .
I have not received any credible threats till date, touch wood, but we are in a time in this country where I think maybe we won’t get threats anymore. I used to say that the time I receive a credible threat is the time I would begin to rethink how I am doing things. But I think that approach needs to rethought now because we are in a state where you may not get credible threats now; they [the perpetrators] may skip straight ahead and disappear you. We’re at a stage where they can really act with impunity because they have created a space in Pakistan where everybody is on their side, whether it be in terms of its narrative and the way the public discourse has been shaped, or they just completely control the other side.

How does the state explicitly control the media?
Many media networks in Pakistan currently work under press advisories, which essentially tell them ‘you can do this’, ‘you can't do this’. Earlier, I said you can report about politics pretty freely in Pakistan, but not anymore. Not just at this moment. In the run up to the elections, they try to control that, too. You were not allowed to report on Nawaz Sharif's ongoing corruption trial in any way that they deemed to be sympathetic towards him. Which meant that you can't report anything in anyway which makes it look like he didn't do it—even if your reporting is factual. That is something that all media houses in Pakistan are under; in some cases, explicit orders are given and in others, assumed orders are implied.

Could you tell us about how the civil laws are used to stop critical investigative journalism?
We have seen a couple of legal matters so far. Cyril Almeida, for instance, wrote the first story on a National Security Committee (NSC) meeting under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, saying that the civilians were pushing back against the military. After the story was published, there was a huge hue and cry from the military saying, Yeh toh hua hi nahi hai (This never happened). NSC meetings are always confidential and whatever goes on in there is not for public reporting. But the story was cross-verified by multiple sources. [The military] formed a commission of inquiry, which first placed him on an Exit Control List as a punitive measure and demanded the civilian government fire ministers for the leak.

The second case is Cyril’s interview with Sharif in Multan earlier this year in the run-up to the elections. It’s extremely extraordinary that it was on-the-record interview with Sharif—in which he is directly quoted saying a number of things, and one of them is the Mumbai attacks, how we are a country that's going to allow people to cross our borders, et cetera—and yet, Cyril has been accused of somehow acting treasonous.

So, this is how legal means are used. They'll accuse you of cyber crimes violations. A journalist, Zafarullah Achakzai, was picked by unidentified men and kept in custody for two or three days. Then they said that they were going to charge him with cyber crimes violation for criticising the frontier corp in Balochistan, which is a paramilitary force. He is now being charged with posting anti-Pakistan content online.

Do you think it’s way more dangerous for female journalists?
Absolutely. I feel that women in every field in Pakistan suffer from or face greater risks when they are out in the field, and in particular, journalists since it is our job to annoy those in power. Additionally, there is also the implicit misogynist assumption that women should not be out and about in anyway, particularly in rural areas. Obviously, the kinds of violence that they can be threatened with would be different as well.

What is the larger threat in the way the Pakistani state forces are clamping down on media dissent?
What's going on in Pakistan is that they are establishing complete and total control over the public sphere. It is silencing dissent to the point where you are controlling the way people are consuming news. And now they have figured out that one way to do that is not necessarily just to threaten the journalist; they are also attempting to go straight to the media owners and to hit them economically. In the last year, we have seen the government not paying its dues to these news organisations—they advertise quite heavily in all the newspapers and television channels; it's not the sole income but it is, let's say, 10-15-20% of the revenue for any major channel. And if you don't get 20% of your revenue for a period of 6-8 months, that's a fairly big loss. This disrupts the distribution of networks. Dawn, for instance, is no longer allowed to distribute in certain areas, which is a clear violation of the law; there is no law that says that you can control the distribution of these organisations. Geo has faced distribution network shut-offs through the cable operators.

What is the latest in this continuous effort to subvert news reportage?
There is a new law on the horizon called the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA), which would be a unified regulator for TV media, print and social media. They are trying to control all forms of media and make expressing dissent illegal.

Interviewees are solely responsible for their statements and do not reflect the views of VICE India.

This is Part II of the four-part series. Read the introductory overview and Part I.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.