Restricted, Intimidated Freedom of Press in Pakistan


Background

On 28 May 2021, telecast on BBC’s Hard Talk, Stephen Sackur conducted an interview of Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who played down reports regarding an increase in attack on independent journalists in Pakistan.

Comment

In the interview, in addition to projecting Pakistan’s misleading picture based on inaccurate figures and fallacious claims, Fawad Chaudhry made a deliberate attempt to tone down the worsening situation of the freedom of press in Pakistan. For instance, in an answer to a question, he said that the situation in Pakistan was not dangerous for journalists only, but it was also dangerous for every citizen because Pakistan was fighting the war on terrorism. By saying so, he tried to sweep under the carpet of the war on terror the restricted and intimidated freedom of press in Pakistan.

The elections of 2018 left Pakistan’s society fractured on the question of manoeuvering elections to benefit one political party against the others. The Pakistanis were expecting a fair deal in the elections, but in vain. The division got accentuated on various occasions, for instance, on the question of legally and publicly disparaging Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who held Pakistan’s top intelligence agency implicated in arranging a sit-in in Faizabad (Rawalpindi) to topple the then government of Nawaz Sharif. Resultantly, Justice Isa was accused of hiding foreign assets of his family members in his wealth statement. A tug of war ensued between vlog journalists who were supporting Justice Isa and those who were maligning him.

Vlog journalists seized attention because the mainstream electronic media have been under severe restrictions since 2018. Hundreds of reporters and dozens of independent minded talk show anchors have been shown the exit door. The idea was to purge the media of dissidents and recusants, especially those who could challenge interference. On 26 April 2021, the Supreme Court exonerated Justice Isa of any blame of misconduct. This was a moment of triumph for vlog journalists such as Asad Ali Toor supporting the cause of Justice Isa. To give Toor a snub, on 25 May 2021, three armed men in civvies forced their entry into his apartment in Islamabad, tortured him brutally damaging his arms and threatened him of dire consequences, if he continued ventilating his views. Woefully, in his interview, Fawad Chaudhry insinuated to the egregious dastardly incident and said that Toor staged a drama to seek attention of foreign countries in an attempt to seek asylum. This was an indecent statement.

Toor’s purported offence was two-pronged: first, he not only supported the cause of Justice Isa, but he also defused the malicious propaganda on social media against the honourable judge; and second, he raised a hue and cry on an attack on Pakistan’s renowned senior journalist, Absar Alam, a man of impeccable character. On 20 April 2021, when Alam was on a promenade outside his house in Islamabad, an armed miscreant targeted him with firing a bullet which pierced through his abdomen. Alam was rushed to a nearby hospital which saved his life. Alam is also supportive of the cause of Justice Isa, besides being a critic to the interference of intelligence agencies in the media.

In both instances of attack, the police got not only CCTV footages, which showed the faces of attackers, but also traces valuable for geo-fencing. The police, however, are still clueless displaying a deliberate ineptitude and incapacity to apprehend the assailants. Interestingly, those journalists have been targeted who are decriers to the incumbent government and the military regime.

In his interview, Fawad Chaudhry also made an astounding claim that he did not consider a distinguished senior journalist Talat Husain a journalist at all. This was another unfortunate devious statement. Husain has been known to Pakistani viewers since 1991 when he used to host current affairs programs at the Government-run Pakistan Television, Islamabad. Husain also made his mark as one of the best column writers contributing to Pakistan’s English dailies, besides working for international media organizations.

In November 2018, Husain opted for abandoning his talk show Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) on a private Tv channel instead of compromising his independent thinking and analytical exposition. After forsaking the Tv channel, Husain became a vlogger and has been successfully running his vlogs expressing his sovereign views. At the moment, he is the most popular vlogger in Pakistan and to watch his vlogs thousands of watchers wait patiently daily. Cleverly, Fawad Chaudhry tried to vilipend Husain. One reason could be jealousy, another could be an attempt to gratify those who are miffed at the criticism that Husain unbridles valiantly. Incidentally, Husain has also supported the cause of Justice Isa.

Understandably, Pakistan has been experiencing the China model of Procrustean governance marked by reduced opposition, controlled society and structured consent. The atrocious acts to structure consent have been instilling insecurity and uncertainty in people about the future of Pakistan. If journalists are balked at speaking and revealing the truth, society will be a victim of illusions. Recreant and compromised journalists are the bane of society. Further, to make an opinion, people have a right to have access to both sides of a story. Keeping people nescient and deluded would deprive them of having a correct vision of the future. Neither any intelligence agency nor the military junta is allowed by law to subdue one side of a view and highlight the other.

In short, the interview indicated clearly that Stephen Sackur was ill-prepared for the topic. The BBC team was short of research and Sackur did not confront Fawad Chaudhry with sufficient probing questions. Moreover, harrying journalists to achieve certain objectives is not a sign of a civilized society congruent with the modern age of information. In Pakistan, the freedom of press is both restricted and intimidated. No journalist, writer or vloger knows whose turn to get tortured and humiliated is next. Suffocation is ascendant. Pakistan needs immediate attention of the world.


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