The increasingly restricted and intimidated freedom of journalists and commentators in Pakistan places at risk the country’s democratic future and demands the world’s attention.
On 28 May 2021, the BBC interviewed Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, on its Hard Talk programme. Mr Chaudhry played down reports of an increase in the number and frequency of attacks, usually by unidentified assailants, on independent journalists in Pakistan.
During the interview, in addition to projecting a misleading picture of Pakistan based on inaccurate figures and fallacious claims, Mr Chaudhry made a deliberate attempt to tone down the deteriorating freedoms that the media in Pakistan have. For instance, in an answer to one question, he said that the situation in Pakistan was not dangerous for journalists only but dangerous for every citizen because Pakistan was fighting a war on terrorism. In saying so, he tried to sweep under the carpet the restricted and intimidated media in Pakistan.
The elections of 2018 left Pakistan’s society fractured on the question of elections being manipulated to benefit one political party against the others. Any hopes that Pakistani citizens held for fair elections were in vain. The fractures were accentuated at various times, as was the case, for instance, on the question of disparaging Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who implicated Pakistan’s top intelligence agency in arranging a sit-in in Faizabad, Rawalpindi, as one of several measures that it took to topple the then government of Nawaz Sharif. Justice Isa was consequently accused of hiding foreign assets that his family members held in his statement of financial assets. A war of words ensued between independent journalists who supported Justice Isa and those in the mainstream media who opposed him. The independent journalists garnered more attention because the mainstream electronic media have been under severe restrictions since 2018. Hundreds of reporters and dozens of independent-minded talk show anchors have lost their jobs. The idea was to purge the media of dissidents and recusants, especially those who would challenge official interference in their reporting. On 26 April 2021, the Supreme Court exonerated Justice Isa of any misconduct. That signalled a triumph for independent journalists such as Asad Ali Toor, who supported Justice Isa. Apparently in retaliation, on 25 May, three armed men in civilian clothes forced their way into his apartment in Islamabad, tortured him and threatened him of dire consequences if he continued to broadcast his views. Woefully, in his interview, Fawad Chaudhry said that Toor staged the incident in an attempt to seek asylum in a foreign country. That statement lacked a basis in reality.
Toor’s purported offence was two-fold. First, he not only supported the cause of Justice Isa, but also defused the malicious propaganda on social media against him. Second, he called much attention to an attack on a renowned senior Pakistani journalist, Absar Alam, who is a man of impeccable character. On 20 April 2021, when Alam was on a promenade outside his home in Islamabad, an armed miscreant shot him in the abdomen. Alam was rushed to a nearby hospital, which saved his life. Alam also supported Justice Isa and often criticises the interference of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in the media.
In both attacks, the police obtained CCTV footage that showed the faces of the attackers and provided valuable information that could have been used for geo-fencing, but were unable to identify the attackers, displaying what can only be seen as deliberate ineptitude and an inability to apprehend the assailants. Interestingly, those journalists who have been targeted decry the current government and the military regime.
In his interview, Fawad Chaudhry also made the astounding claim that he did not consider a distinguished senior journalist Talat Husain a journalist at all. This was another devious statement. Husain has been known to Pakistani viewers since 1991, when he used to host current affairs programs at the Government-run Pakistan Television in Islamabad. Husain also made his mark as one of the best columnists in Pakistan’s English dailies, besides working for international media organisations. In November 2018, Husain opted to leave his talk show Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) on a private TV channel rather than compromise his independent thinking and journalistic standards. After leaving that TV channel, Husain became an independent journalist, broadcasting his video reports via the Internet with much success. He is currently the most popular reporter of that type in Pakistan, with thousands of viewers daily. Cleverly, Fawad Chaudhry tried to vilify Husain. One reason for doing so could be an attempt to mollify those who Husain criticises. Incidentally, Husain has also supported Justice Isa.
Pakistan has increasingly experienced in recent times the China model of authoritarianism, which is marked by reduced opposition, controlled society and manufactured consent. The atrocious attempts to manufacture consent have led to insecurity and uncertainty about the future of Pakistan among its people. If journalists baulk at revealing the truth, society will fall victim to illusion. Further, in order to have an informed opinion, people must have access to all sides of a story. Keeping people nescient deprives them of make correct judgements, such as at choosing a government. The law does not allow any intelligence agency or national institution to subdue one side and highlight another.
The interview that he conducted with Mr Chaudhry clearly indicated that Stephen Sackur was ill-prepared for the topic. The BBC team’s research was found wanting and Sackur did not confront Fawad Chaudhry with sufficiently-probing questions. Moreover, harrying journalists to achieve certain objectives is not a sign of a civilised society that is congruent with the modern information age. In Pakistan, the media is both restricted and intimidated. Journalists and commentators risk torture and humiliation. That situation in Pakistan demands the immediate attention of the world.