South Asia

In Pakistan, the Press Remains in Chains While Pashtun Activists March On

The army is unwilling to give any space to news reports or opinion pieces favourable to the Pashtuns and intends to continue ensuring a near-complete electronic media blackout of the movement.

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) – which came to the fore after the extrajudicial killing of a young Pashtun man at the hands of police officer Rao Anwar in Karachi earlier this year – continues to march on in Pakistan. It recently held an impressive rally in Peshawar – the Pashtun heartland – without the support of the traditional Pashtun nationalist outfit, the Awami National Party (ANP), which considers itself the political heir to ‘Frontier Gandhi’ – the late Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

The rally brought together a large number of the families of missing Pashtun men and boys, who they claim were forcibly disappeared by the Pakistan Army during and after its operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – where the country’s constitutional provisions do not apply – and in the so-called “settled” areas like the Swat Valley, which is part of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

The PTM’s key leader, Manzoor Pashteen, continues to capture the imagination of the Pashtuns with his unassuming demeanour, straightforward explanation of the movement’s main objectives, clear roadmap and resolve to persevere where others have faltered. His plain talk reiterates the movement’s key demands, including the release of those abducted by the army who are innocent and producing before the courts the ones who may have any charges against them.

Army’s response

The Peshawar rally, however, was not the last one. The PTM announced one in Lahore, which has rattled the Pakistani security establishment – a euphemism for the country’s army. The army has been leery of the PTM from the outset but the announcement to hold the rally in Lahore – where no key Pashtun leader has held one since the ANP’s late Wali Khan in the mid-1980s – threw it into a real tizzy.

The army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, took it upon himself to castigate the PTM as “engineered protests” and said that it would not be allowed to undo the so-called gains of military operations. In order to put his words into action, his minions began doing what the army has done for decades – threaten and abduct political workers, censor the press, stifle the electronic media and smear dissenters as foreign agents.

People chant slogans and hold signs as they condemn the death of Naqibullah Mehsud, whose family said he was killed by police in a so-called “encounter killing”, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan. Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

Several leaders of the PTM and the leftist Awami Workers Party (AWP), who were involved in planning the Lahore protest, were taken into custody by the Punjab police. Protests erupted over social media after a video surfaced of them being taken into custody, which appeared more like an illegal detention than a formal arrest. The authorities eventually caved in to the backlash and released the leaders.

To the army’s ultimate chagrin, the PTM eventually held an unprecedented rally in Lahore, which was attended not just by the Pashtuns but also by the Punjabi civil and human rights activists and leftist political cadres. The PTM leaders announced that they would hold further rallies in Swat, which was once firmly under the heels of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), followed by one in Karachi.

What became clear before and after the Lahore rally was that the army is unwilling to give any space to news reports or opinion pieces favourable to the PTM and intends to continue ensuring a near-complete electronic media blackout of the movement and therefore of the FATA, which it continues to use as a sanctuary for its agenda against Afghanistan.

Mohammad Bilal holds a picture of his son Hazratullah as he takes part in a protest with members of the Pashtun community against what they say are enforced “disappearances” and routine oppression, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Credit: Reuters/Saad Sayeed

Columnist after columnist announced on Twitter that their weekly column was not published because of the topic – the PTM. Former Senator Afrasiab Khattak and Gul Bukhari, regular writers for The Nation, and Mosharraf Zaidi, Talat Hussain and Imtiaz Alam, who write for The News International, had their columns pulled.

In one instance, The News International took down a column by a Pashtun activist Khan Zaman Kakar from its website after it had been appeared in the print edition. I have had the first-hand experience of my own weekly column getting shut down by the Daily Times under duress from the army three years ago for similar reasons: criticising the army’s jihadist policy as well as its sham operations in the FATA and its highhandedness against the people there.

Pakistan’s largest private television news channel, Geo, has also faced the wrath of the army, which not only banned the channel in cantonment areas but also the delivery of the group’s newspapers Jang and The News there.

Past censorship

The chronicler of curbs on the media in Pakistan, Zamir Niazi, wrote in his book The Press In Chains that the first political thought to be censored in Pakistan was actually that of the country’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It was Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 address to the constituent assembly, a speech described as the greatest of his life by his biographer Hector Bolitho, that ended up on the censor’s chopping block. This was the landmark speech in which Jinnah laid down his vision for a by and large secular Pakistan as he perceived it. Niazi cites Hamid Jalal that “this speech of the Quaid-e-Azam became the target of what may be called the first of the press advices issued by Pakistan’s permanent establishment … however it was still a shadowy establishment”. Most of the then media toed the establishment’s line and suppressed the speech, except the daily Dawn that carried it.

Niazi has also recorded an incident where parts of Jinnah’s sister and confidant Fatima Jinnah’s speech were muted by Radio Pakistan. Fatima was to address the nation at her brother’s death anniversary on September 11, 1951, when Radio Pakistan’s director Z.A. Bukhari asked her to delete two sentences that were critical of the then government. Fatima refused and was allowed to go on air only to find later that her talk “had faded out at two points, which later were found to coincide with the sentences to which Bokhari had objected”. People protested the censor and Fatima refused to deliver the commemorative address till years later.

A file image of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.

A file image of Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Credit: Reuters

In Pakistan, the army formally anointed itself as the arbiter of the so-called national interest with Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s coup d’etat and relegated the civil bureaucracy to play the second fiddle to it in the permanent establishment. To complete its chokehold on the national interest narrative, the Ayub Khan regime brazenly muzzled the press and forcibly took over the independent Progressive Papers Limited of Mian Iftikharuddin, which included the dailies Pakistan Times, Imroze and the periodical Lail-o-Nahar. In a hard-hitting piece, which remains a must-read even today, the Pakistan Times‘ editor Mazhar Ali Khan later wrote in Feroz Ahmed’s Pakistan Forum:

“It will not be easy for our future historians to determine which single action of the self-appointed President and his Government of courtiers did the greatest harm to the national interest, for they will have a wide field to survey. Many will probably conclude that the Dictatorship’s gravest crime was its deliberate destruction of press freedom, because so many other evils flowed from this act of denying to the people of Pakistan one of their fundamental rights. It is, therefore, pertinent to recall the Ayub regime’s first step towards this fascist aim, namely, its attack on the Progressive Papers, an institution created under the patronage of the Quaid-e-Azam.”

Military’s control over the narrative in Pakistan

In Pakistan, it seems, the more things change the more they remain the same. From the television outlets muting the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent speech to the army chief directly giving press advice to a group of journalists and the army hounding the dissenting voices in the print and electronic media, the military is unwilling to let go of its control over the narrative. There are thousands of social media accounts that parrot the army’s line while the army itself has abducted social media activists and tortured bloggers.

In their landmark article titled ‘21st-century censorship’, the authors Philip Bennett and Moises Naim had produced a matrix of the censorship types and methods deployed by the present-day regimes, that ranges from direct violence against journalists to sly use of internet proxy warriors that troll legitimate political dissenters and rights campaigners. For each of the listed tools to control or mould opinion and stifle dissent, there’s an available example in the Pakistan Army’s war against the freedom of expression.

From torturing and killing journalists like Saleem Shahzad to forcing electronic and print media into self-censorship, the Pakistan Army has consistently deployed a panoply of coercive measures, in addition to the carrots it dangles in front of media persons. As Bennett and Naim have pointed out, many states and state agencies “went from spectators in the digital revolution to sophisticated early adopters of advanced technologies that allowed them to monitor content, activists and journalists, and direct the flow of information.”

Pakistan Army’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), is one such entity that fits the bill. The near-complete blackout of the PTM’s massive rally in Swat on April 29 in the electronic and print media again shows that the ISPR is getting away with serving as the de facto censor and media control authority in Pakistan.

What the army under General Bajwa is doing to dissenters is a reminder of Ayub Khan’s regime. The army’s treatment of the PTM and its peaceful demand for constitutional rights and legal redressal of grievances should send alarm bells ringing. George Bernard Shaw had said that the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship. And to me, the first sign of regression is its return. Pakistan has effectively regressed to martial law. What we had known since the ostensible return of democracy in Pakistan in 2008 was that the army has the complete control over the foreign and national security policies and most domestic affairs as well.

An apparent decade of democracy has actually been ten years of undeclared martial law with a democratic fig leaf. What the PTM and its leader Manzoor Pashteen have done is to force that martial law to bare its ugly, iron teeth. Pakistani politicians and rights activists can join Pashteen’s entourage or wait for their turn when the army comes for them.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist; he tweets at @mazdaki.