Pakistan Army’s Threats Won’t Silence Me: Journalist Taha Siddiqui
Image of Taha Siddiqui used for representational purposes. 
Image of Taha Siddiqui used for representational purposes. (Photo: Kamran Akhter / The Quint)

Pakistan Army’s Threats Won’t Silence Me: Journalist Taha Siddiqui

On 10 January 2018, I was on my way to the Islamabad airport in a taxi, when it was intercepted on the highway. I was almost kidnapped by armed men, who I believe are from the Pakistan Army, but I escaped at the last minute.

I have since left Pakistan, and now live in France. The military had been threatening me for a few years for my journalistic work, and I was told that the next time they come for me, they’d kill me.

I was lucky to escape the country, but my journalist colleagues in Pakistan haven’t been as fortunate. The situation for the press has only worsened under the new Imran Khan-led regime, whose political party came into power in July 2018, and is considered close to the army.

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Pakistan’s Clampdown On Freedom Of Press

Given several such attacks (like the one on me) in the last year or so against Pakistani journalists, the press has been pushed into self-censorship. A recent study found out that 88 percent of Pakistani journalists exercise self-censorship when reporting on sensitive issues like the military, religion, human rights etc.

Many journalists agree that the year 2018 has been exceptionally worse for our community, given the state-led clampdown on the freedom of press.

A leading news channel Geo News was taken off cable networks, and one of the oldest newspapers, Dawn's supply continues to remain disrupted in the country while facing treason charges, because these organisations have been critical of Pakistani military.

According to Freedom Network, an independent media-monitoring body, 26 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in just five years, and more than 100 have been murdered in the past decade and a half. What’s worse, a majority of these killings remain unsolved, and are related to conflict reporting.

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Threat of Losing One’s Livelihood

Now journalists are even facing economic threats: hundreds of news practitioners have lost their jobs in Pakistan in recent months over a financial crunch that seems manufactured. This, since new media organisations are launching news channels at the same time as some news channels and news papers are shutting down over ad revenues being dried up.

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Most of these organisations that are cutting back on costs, have been critical of the government and the military. And it is not just the mainstream media that is facing the onslaught.

The internet and social media are also being heavily censored in Pakistan, and reports suggest that this trend has increased in the last one year. More than 800,000 websites are banned in the country by the internet regulatory body (according to a recent report).

Giant social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been working with the Pakistani government, and have been helping the authorities in my country to silence social media users. Online activists also regularly get abducted by intelligence officials from the Pakistan Army.

In this environment, it is best to stay away from the country as I did for the last year. But even abroad, they are harassing dissidents like me.

Heckling, And Campaigns of Hate

When I recently spoke in Washington, DC at a conference of Pakistani dissidents organised by Husain Haqqani (the former Pakistan Ambassador to the US), who, like me, is in exile too, a handful of Pakistani men tried to gate crash this invite-only event and protested when they were not allowed to come in.

They made videos of this forced entry, and soon after, Pakistani news channels (known to be close to the Pakistani military) started running this footage, accusing us of being traitors.

Some Pakistani journalists who reported this incident later claimed that they were tasked by the military official at the Pakistani embassy in DC to use the videos of this staged protest, and give it extensive media coverage.

Then we also faced an organised campaign of hate, initiated against us on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The Pakistani military allegedly runs social media cells with troll armies that attack independent voices in Pakistan. I know of this because I met some such youngsters at a military-run university in Islamabad a few years ago, when I went to give a lecture.

Amid Death Threats & Struggle, Hope for a Better Pakistan

Military personnel involved in managing the press (from back home) have also repeatedly reached out to me directly. Three times publicly via social media, and few times privately via phone, asking me to return, but assuring my guarantee only if I start doing “positive reporting”, and stop writing or publicly speaking critically about the Pakistan Army. (‘Positive journalism’ is a term that the chief of the military media cell General Asif Ghafoor recently spoke about in a press conference).

And now there are even more serious threats that I have become privy to. I recently met with Western law enforcement authorities and found out about a plot to assassinate me, if I were to ever return to my country.

I was also advised to not visit Pakistan embassies and Pakistan-friendly countries. Similar advisories have been received by other Pakistanis critical of the military.

This latest development has put me in a dilemma. I keep wondering if all this life-threatening struggle is worth it?

In this last one year, I have thought many times about giving up my fight to speak up about Pakistan and the wrongs there, and focus on something else in life.

But one thought makes me continue – I want to see a better Pakistan.

I want to see a Pakistan where human rights are not abused, where pluralism is celebrated and freedom of expression is a guarantee. And a Pakistan where I can return to to live again and not be killed.

(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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