When Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan was asked during his official visit to the United States (US) at the end of July about press freedom violations in his country, he replied: “Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world (…) To say there are curbs on the Pakistan press is a joke.”
However, Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, France, believes “There is nothing funny about this “joke” for journalists” in Pakistan. Even during Prime Minister Khan’s visit to the US, the leading Pakistani TV news channel, Geo News, was again censored and citizens of Pakistan saw only a blank screen when they tried to obtain independent, public interest reporting regarding their Prime Ministers tour.
Such targeting is common place for Geo News. In June a live interview was taking place with former President Asif Ali Zardari by the well-known journalist Hamid Mir when, after only a few moments of airtime, the channel was cut in an arbitrary act of censorship. Similarly, the broadcasts of three other Pakistani TV news channels, AbbTakk TV, 24 News and Capital TV, were suspended from cable TV services without any warning on 8 July, and they remained suspended for several days. Najam Sethi, a well-known journalist who often works with 24 News, confirmed that the suspension was a reprisal for their coverage of a press conference by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, another political opposition figure.
Even Pakistan’s prestigious daily news media Dawn, which was founded as part of the fight against British colonialism in 1941 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the Pakistani nation, is currently being subjected to harsh economic harassment. The Pakistani government has denied the media outlet any income from state advertising since 24 April this year. According to Reporters Without Borders sources, this arbitrary decision was a retribution for an article published the previous day about a press conference Imran Khan gave in Tehran where he stated that Pakistan-based militants had been involved in attacks inside Iran. The censorship of reporting in Pakistan has additionally expanded to prevent the media from sharing what their Prime Minister says whilst travelling overseas.
Ali Sher Rajpar, the president of the press club in Padidan, in south-eastern Sindh province, was fatally shot five times at point blank range on 4 May. This attack came shortly after he unsuccessfully requested police protection because of the numerous threats he had received in connection with his coverage of local corruption. Just four days before that, after another Pakistani journalist, Malik Amanullah Khan, was gunned down in the Parowa area of Dera Ismail Khan district, in north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He too was the president of the local press club.
Muhammad Bilal Khan, a journalist and blogger whose YouTube channel had more than 50,000 followers, was hacked to death in an Islamabad suburb in June. One of his last videos was about one of Imran Khan’s speeches and, in one of his final tweets, he had criticised the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The police have made no arrests in any of these three cases. When not targeted physically, journalists who cross certain lines are subjected to judicial harassment. Shahzeb Jillani, an investigative journalist, for example, was charged with “cyber- terrorism” in April in connection with a tweet referring to an ISI officer.
Such brazen cases of censorship have been condemned by Reporters Without Borders who wrote to the Prime Minister Pakistan on 31st July to highlight his non-democratic regimes which seriously threaten journalistic independence and pluralism. Pakistan has fallen three places in just the last year under Prime Minister Khan’s leadership in the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, where it is now ranks 142nd out of 180 countries.
Christophe Deloire Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders urged Imran Khan and his government to allow Pakistan’s journalists to exercise their profession in complete safety and with complete independence, as envisaged in article 19 of the 1973 constitution.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has ratified the Human Rights Convention and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under which freedom of expression and freedom of the press is covered. Any violation of these conventions would result in its suspension from the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) The lack of journalistic freedoms in Pakistan has made it difficult for reporting of any kind to be verified. This becomes increasingly problematic when sensitive issues – like human rights – are being investigated. The European Union must accept its responsibility in protecting journalists in Pakistan whilst granting the country trade preferences.