South Asia

The Dirty Politics of Pakistan's Censored Democracy

After the Pashtun uprising and the subsequent media intimidation, Pakistan's election appears to be skewed in more than one way.

Lahore: When anchorperson Gul Bukhari ‘disappeared’ on her way home on June 5, Pakistan’s journalist community was shocked and worried. This was the second time a female journalist had been abducted under strange circumstances, the first being Zeenat Shahzadi in 2016. After reportedly being taken to an undisclosed location, Bukhari was eventually released by her captors in the early hours of June 6.  

What made the episode even scarier and more intimidating was that that very same day, another journalist and anchorperson, Asad Kharal, was beaten up while he was on his way home. In a photograph, Kharal can be seen wearing a shirt with a bloody collar.

The condemnation over the two incidents poured in immediately. Awami National Party’s Afrasiab Khattak from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said:

Bilawal Bhutto, who has recently made a few courageous statements, said that it was undemocratic to suppress expression and speech.

‘Censored democracy’

The state of affairs in Pakistan when it comes to the media is dismal and things have been getting worse since 2016. What is now popularly known as the ‘Dawn Leaks’ began after eminent journalist Cyril Almeida caused a political storm when he wrote an article alleging that the Sharifs, especially Shahbaz Sharif, had an ‘extraordinary verbal confrontation” with the military higher ups. 

This resulted in Pervez Rashid, one of the main PML-N players, in becoming the scapegoat and resigning from his post quell the situation.

But the satisfaction of that was short lived.

Matters took a turn for worse after then prime minister Nawaz Sharif gave an interview – again to Dawn – where he brought attention to the fact that ‘parallel governments were running’ and that ‘militant organisations were active’. Perhaps the military authorities did not like the fact that Sharif, in so many words, said “Should we allow them (these militant organisations) to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” — in a reference to the Mumbai attacks-related trials which have been stalled in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.

A man reads a copy of Dawn in Karachi on May 20, 2018. Credit: Reuters

After that episode, another thorn emerged in the form of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or the Pashtun Protection Movement. Led by young Manzoor Pashteen, who had been known in the area as a social worker, the Pashtuns made demands for their lives and homes to be made safe and to be given their constitutional rights. But Pashteen made his accusations against the military establishment in public – and laid the blame at the institution’s feet for a lot of trouble ordinary Pakistanis face.

Soon enough, any channel covering PTM rallies were blacked out. Newspapers didn’t carry news of Pashteen’s rallies. Several TV channels chose to ‘self-censor’ by leaving out the controversial bits,  but Geo News, Pakistan’s biggest media house, kept on airing the news and was eventually blacked out.

Geo was blacked out for days. When it came back on air after an apparent understanding with the military, there was no mention of Pashteen or anything that could create waves.

A crackdown on Dawn followed suit after Nawaz’s interview was published. According to a Pakistan Today report, newspaper distributors had said that they were “told not to distribute the newspaper because it ran Nawaz’s controversial statement and was ‘pro-Nawaz’”. Since May 2018, Dawn has vanished in all cantonment or army controlled areas, and in the entire province of Baluchistan. Distributors said the reason was that it was ‘pro-Nawaz’.

Dirty politics

As the nation moved towards the elections, which are being held tomorrow, the media clampdown has worsened and is no longer limited to Geo News and Dawn. Dawn has been suffering less ads and a limited circulation. The news it prints has been toned down. But editor Zafar Abbas the CEO Hameed Haroon have both demonstrated that they will not back down from reporting the truth. Haroon recently gave an interview to Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk where he also spoke as the President of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS).

Besides talking about the state of the media, Haroon said that some of the politicians were being favoured more while others were being sidelined. For many journalists and analysts, the establishment appears to be favouring Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the cricketer-turned-politician visibly appears to not be playing on a level field.

“The cornering of the PML-N, and then making so much space for PTI and Imran… It’s definitely a soft coup, and a judicial one at that,” says a journalist, on the condition of anonymity. “All of a sudden we are seeing judicial activism, and this seems to be extra critical of everything related to the PML-N. So much so that we cannot even refer to him as the former prime minister, rather as a convicted criminal.”

“This kind of a dirty game is only making way for one thing – an extremely undemocratic force that will end up being part of the government,” he said.


Senior journalist Shahid Husain says that the media clampdown is not new. In his 50 years as a journalist he has seen it happen time and again, with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime being the worst (four journalists were flogged in public). Under the Pervez Musharraf’s regime, many private channels had opened but all of them were being controlled by the state. “Everyday in Pakistan, there are journalists being picked up, killed, injured, tortured or just intimidated,” he says.

“The politics of this country is interlinked with every other institution here. Be it the military or the media,” he says. “When you want to play this great game, then there are some players which have to leave and others which have to be controlled.”

Meanwhile, the military has remained firm that they would “not affect the elections directly”, according to DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor. He also said that they would aid in the elections being held safely and fairly by being present both inside and outside the booths. Khan has also decried claims that any victory on his part meant that it was orchestrated.

Khan has been quite vocal over the last few weeks, condemning the Sharif family, including Nawaz’s daughter Maryam. At times, he has even used unsavoury language for all PML-N voters and also the Sharif family. In one speech, he used the word gadha or ‘donkey’ – an Urdu/Hindi slur on a person’s general being. The very next day some PTI followers repeatedly kicked a donkey hard in the stomach, jaw and nose, injuring the animal severely. It eventually died in the care of an animal shelter. But Imran did not reprimand his followers for such violent behaviour, instead saying that it was a generic word.

Imran Khan, populist opposition leader and former star cricket player, leads an anti-government protest in Islamabad, April 28 2017. Credit: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Imran Khan, populist opposition leader and former star cricket player. Credit: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Imran’s PTI has enjoyed great freedom while campaigning, despite the party welcoming terrorist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen into its ranks. The same cannot be said of the other contenders – the Awami National Party (ANP) and Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP) have suffered severe bomb blasts, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is already haunted by the assassination of Benzair Bhutto. The PML-N is being tried in court and former leader and prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam are presently in jail.

In Lahore, which has always been the hub of the PML-N vote bank, suddenly only PTI flags and banners could be seen. PML-N’s campaigning only picked up some speed towards the end.

Setting the stage

“The PML-N is a political reality,” says Shaukat, a voter. “It has a large vote bank especially in rural and semi-rural areas and this cannot be undone by repeatedly chanting the slogan of ‘corruption’. People look at the work that has been done.”

Another voter says that Imran Khan is yet to mature to handle situations in politics. But according to a third, Shahnaz, who is a political science teacher at a university, “this kind of fascist tendency is happening all around the world”. “Look at [Donald] Trump and [Narendra] Modi and other countries. Keeping that in mind, Imran may win, but it still feels difficult.”

In any case, even if Khan does not bag all that many National Assembly seats, he will emerge as the big winner in Punjab.

“I cannot believe that our people would suddenly just turn to Imran khan,” says Junaid a voter. “He seems an unstable person, always taking things to a new level.”

“But many believe that politics is a dirty business. Now that he has gotten his hands dirty by making many crude statements and his crass behaviour, he and his supporters will understand that the PTI is just a one tenure party and nothing more.”