South Asia

Pak Ruling Party's Twitter Campaign Seen as Veiled Threat to Journalists

In over a dozen tweets, Imran Khan's PTI slammed the press for criticising the government and 'expressing enemy's stance'.

New Delhi: A series of tweets issued early on July 16 by Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were interpreted as a veiled attack on the freedom of the press. Using the hashtag #JournalismnotAgenda, the party – which is led by Prime Minister Imran Khan – claimed that in their “quest” to criticise the state, journalists are “intentionally or unintentionally” propagating the “enemy’s stance”.

The party also emphasised the vitality of ‘responsible journalism’ in the role of “nation building”, rather than in being a “puppet of the state enemies”.

While the tweets also praised media and its role in society, they also contained muffled warnings to journalists and media. In one tweet, PTI alleged that false reporting and “anti-national propaganda” deteriorates the credibility of the journalist community at large. Another tweet claimed that journalists themselves undermine freedom of the press by “regurgitating propaganda to serve vested interests, running character assassination campaigns & fake news”.

The current socio-political sentiment in Pakistan is one of a rising fear of censorship by the military establishment. In a statement issued recently, hundreds of Pakistani civil society members – including journalists – expressed a concern that the country’s democratic transition was being “reversed”.

While seemingly promoting free speech, the censorship of digital and printed press is customary in Pakistan. Furthermore, journalists being pressured and intimidated through kidnappings, beatings, and even killings by the state is rampant. Just two weeks ago, the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists became a Twitter trend in Pakistan, with over 28,000 uses and forwards. According to a report by RFERL, Pakistan is ranked 142 of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

Also Read: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition Is Being Reversed, Say Civil Society Members

A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists said that in 2016, the distribution of Dawn newspapers in the Sindh and Punjab regions was prohibited. This decision was taken after the newspaper exclusively reported on the Pakistani military’s relationship with government leaders. Again in May 2018, after publishing an interview with Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the paper’s distribution was disrupted by military guards.

The effects of PTI’s veiled twitter threats were felt immediately. Prominent TV news reporter Najam Sethi tweeted that a segment of his show on Channel 24, dealing with censorship and repression of the media, was cut. Sethi, who is also the founder of The Friday Times newspaper, said that the channel’s management acted on the orders of the “Invisible Censor Board”. He also claimed that Channel 24 was taken off the air while his show as being aired.

On Thursday, the Dawn newspaper reported that PTI claimed that the tweet storm was meant to “educate” journalists, not threaten them. The party’s information secretary Omar Sarfraz Cheema denied that its social media team has not threatened or ridiculed media.

The PM’s Focal Person on Digital Media Arslan Khalid also told reiterated similar claims. “I totally support the hashtag and stand by it. If you see the other trends that were trending in Pakistan at the time calling for layoffs of ‘lifafa journalists’, you will see that we in fact steered the conversation away from that [negative] campaign and ran an alternative, more educative trend instead from the official account,” he said.

Accounts of intimidation, threats

A report by The Hindu said that two interviews with high-profile leaders of the opposition were removed from the air, including one with Maryam Sharif, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif. The report also said that journalists have faced personal intimidation. Asma Shirazi said there were two attempted cases of break-ins at her house.

Recently, 22-year-old blogger and freelance journalist Muhammad Bilal Khan, who had a reputation for being critical of the military, was killed by unindentified persons. Gul Bukhari, another journalist, was killed for allegedly being “anti-national”. TV anchor Hamid Mir suffered multiple gunshot wounds in 2014, which he claimed to be the work of Pakistani spy organisation Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Muhammad Bilal Khan. Photo: Twitter

However, Pakistani journalists have refused to back down and have been resisting the rising imposition on free speech. On July 16, a nationwide protest, spearheaded by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, was held to condemn the “unprecedented censorship”.

“The rallies are only the beginning of the movement”, says president of the union Afzal Butt.