While Pakistan was busy counting COVID cases and deaths, a notification issued by the Cabinet Division of the Pakistani PM Imran Khan said, “The prime minister... has been pleased to appoint Lt Gen (Rtd) Asim Saleem Bajwa as special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, in [an] honorary capacity, with immediate effect.”
This proves once more, what civil society in the country has now been saying for almost two years: that the civilian government is all but a total farce, and that Imran Khan is nothing but a hologram – deputed to beg for money and otherwise make a fool of himself the way he did with the Corona Tigers Relief Teams. And, above all, that the real government of the country is the Army.
Imran Khan Govt’s ‘Military Mentors’ & ‘Civil Leadership’ Are ‘On the Same Page’
According to many, the Army stepped out openly, after allowing Imran Khan to give foolish speeches about the coronavirus – just to prove that the civilian government was totally incapable of dealing with the emergency – and did not seem to care anymore to keep in place that thin layer of formal ‘democracy’. The military is everywhere – officials sit in all the strategic commissions in the country, and the appointment of a retired Lt General as ‘special assistant’ on information and broadcasting should not come as a surprise.
Pakistan’s media persecution has, in fact, touched in the past two years, new depths.
Abuses, abductions, assassinations and evictions from jobs are the new normal, as media houses, while retrenching employees, engage in self-censorship to survive and struggle with the everyday more stringent rules imposed by the ‘civilian and democratic’ government of the country.
Media and human rights bodies, both domestic and global, have been for long, pointing fingers at the Imran Khan government, that, by its own admission, has his military mentors and his civil leadership “on the same page”. Threats to media house owners have been unprecedented. They are subjected to blacklisting of newspapers and blocking of their copies in some restive areas of the country. Women journalists are even worse off. Besides harassment at work and on way to work, they are subjected to online abuse.
Women have to self-censor and cut back on working hours to stay safe.
133 Pakistani Journalists Killed Since 2000
According to a report released by the Islamabad-based organisation ‘Media Matters for Democracy’, three out of ten women journalists were victims of serious online offences such as blackmail and incitement to violence. According to the data collected by the USA Freedom Network, 133 Pakistani journalists have been killed since the year 2000. The legal proceedings in all the 33 incidents of journalists’ killings – that took place from 2013 to 2019 – have been documented and analysed, and the result is: hundred percent impunity for the killers, zero percent justice for the murdered journalists.
In its 2019 report, the American think-tank ‘Freedom House’, has declared Pakistan ‘not free’ in terms of internet use for the ninth consecutive year.
All the international bodies have been highlighting the threatening, the disparaging language used by the government officials – starting with Imran Khan – and the explicit warnings issued by the ISPR, the Pakistan Army’s media wing – should they not toe the line.
‘Army Is Ruling Pakistan With Impunity’
In the last few months, moreover, a new, even more worrying trend, has started. Pakistani journalists and activists are not safe anymore – even abroad. Ahmad Waqass Goraya, a Pakistani blogger, forced to leave the country after being taken and tortured by the same State that should have ensured his freedom of speech, was beaten up and threatened in Rotterdam in February 2019, and thrown out of his house by Urdu-speaking ‘unknown’ people. “This attack fits the modus operandi of Pakistani spy agencies,” he told Reporters sans Frontiers. There are at least two well known Pakistani journalists abroad who are still being threatened with action against their families who are still in Pakistan, by the ISI. The activist Gul Bukhari, was again openly threatened by Pakistani authorities in February, with terror charges and a request of extradition from UK, if she did not stop her criticism against the government and Army.
Then in March 2020, something even more worrisome happened. Sajjid Hussain, a Baloch journalist, went missing in Uppsala, Sweden, where he was living as a refugee.
After almost two months (he disappeared on 2 March), there is still no news of him, and the Swedish authorities refuse to share information on their supposed investigation. Again, the ‘disappearance’ fits the modus operandi of the ISI, and is in line with the treatment of Baloch and Pashtuns in Pakistan, but Sajjid's family, still in Pakistan, is too scared even to mention the word ‘ISI’.
The Army is ruling Pakistan with complete impunity, becoming more powerful and arrogant by the day – backed by China, and with the connivance of half the world pretending to believe in Imran’s ‘civilian and democratic government’. The appointment of Bajwa is only another nail in the coffin of freedom in Pakistan. And, unfortunately, will not be the last.
(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. She tweets at @francescam63. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)