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Pakistan Press Biased, Shadow-Banning Maryam Nawaz Proves Again

The most blatant example of Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s clampdown on press was witnessed during his trip to the US.

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In his maiden visit to the United States, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that there were no curbs on press freedom in the country, when he was asked a question about this during a joint-press conference held at the White House by his counterpart, the US President Donald Trump.

“To say there are curbs on Pakistan press is a joke,” he told reporters, citing how he is constantly criticised by the Pakistani press. However, the truth is a lot more complex than that.

Ever since Khan has come to power in the controversial elections of July 2018, there has been a new wave of clampdown against independent voices in the country, and the most blatant example of that was witnessed during Khan’s trip to the US.
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As Khan held a political meeting with his party supporters and members in an arena in Washington DC, Pakistani media did wall-to-wall coverage of the event, showcasing Khan's popularity among non-voters in a foreign country. (They are non-voters since Pakistani expats cannot vote in Pakistani elections).

But at the same time, Maryam Nawaz Sharif's rally happening in the country was blacked out by the local media and those who dared to show any coverage of it had to face a shutdown or reshuffle on the cable networks – an old tactic used by the Pakistan authorities to disrupt the viewership of channels that do not abide by orders of the government.

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Sharif, the daughter of the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the de-facto head of the PML-N, the party that her father heads, is being repeatedly blacked out by the Pakistani media.

Channels Blacked Out for Covering Sharif’s Rally

Just a few weeks ago, three Pakistani news channels were taken off air. The channels were not given any official reason but it later emerged that the censorship was once again carried out to punish them for covering Sharif's press conference and political rally in the country.

The blacking out started after the opposition leader revealed a video in a press conference that showed an accountability judge accepting on camera that he had sentenced Nawaz Sharif due to pressure and blackmail.

Since then, Sharif has been demanding that her father be freed from jail as he has been wrongly punished but instead of airing her demands, the media has been censoring her.

And its not just with her political activities. Even her one-on-one interviews have faced a similar axe – recently her interview on a Pakistani channel was stopped right after it began.

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‘Worst Form of Fascism,’ Says Bilawal Bhutto

But it’s not just Maryam Sharif who’s facing media censorship in Pakistan. A few weeks before, former President Asif Ali Zardari's interview was also dropped a few minutes after it went on air. The anchor who conducted the interview tweeted later on saying “we are not living in a free country.”

Bilawal Bhutto, Zardari’s son, and the chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) issued a recent statement questioning the censorship by the government, especially that of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and called it “the worst form of fascism.”

International media monitoring groups have also decried the censorship in Pakistan that PM Khan seems to be clueless about.

Right after Sharif's coverage was censored, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement saying it was “appalled to learn [about it]”. RSF further said that “this latest case of brazen censorship was indicative of disturbing dictatorial tendencies.”

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88% of Pak Journalists Self-Censor in Pakistan

Pakistan media has always played it safe but now it seems like anything can trigger censorship and journalists complain that they no longer know the red lines they should not cross.

A recent survey carried out in the country by a media watchdog pointed out that 88 percent of the country’s journalists self-censor to avoid getting into trouble. And the threats are not just limited to censoring them.

At least 26 journalists were killed in Pakistan during the last five years for their work, 25 of these cases remain resolved, according to Freedom Network Pakistan, an independent rights group. In the one case that was solved, the conviction of the accused by a lower court was later overturned by a superior court.

Big media organisations have also had to face a new kind of coercion – of being financially squeezed – with the advertisement revenue allocated for the media being cut down by the government, which many feel is an attempt to control independent voices. Due to this monetary crunch, over a 1,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the last one year alone, according to independent estimates.

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What is worse is that – amidst all this media censorship – Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the ruling party was seen schooling journalists from its official Twitter account.

Last week, they issued a series of tweets under the hashtag #JournalismNotAgenda warning that journalists who criticised the government might be committing treason. “Expressing enemy’s stance is not freedom of speech but treason against its people,” said one tweet.

But despite this growing censorship, Pakistani public is finding other means to get their information, and one of the biggest sources for it has been social media, which the country's policy-makers have been unable to censor, as yet.

And Sharif knows this well as she pointed it out herself on Twitter right after her recent rally was censored. In a tweet she said: “In this age of information technology, censorship cannot stop her coverage but only affirm that government is facing defeat...”

(Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in Paris since February 2018 and is currently writing a book about Pakistan. He teaches journalism at SciencesPo and runs a digital platform called safenewsrooms.org, which documents censorship in the media. He tweets at @TahaSSiddiqui This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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