Pakistani military keeps journalists on a tight leash

Fearing persecution and facing threats to their lives, journalists tread carefully in Pakistan. The brave and bold who pose awkward questions are most at risk, writes Pakistani journalist Warda Imran

By Warda Imran

The world knows of press freedom in Pakistan through statistics and reports of censorship on content. I know of press freedom in Pakistan through lived reality because I have watched fantastic journalistic pieces be deleted and authors being told to steer clear of topics that clash with companies' interests – for example investigations of how powerful fashion houses exploit their workers.

Why become a journalist?

I was quite young when I understood how a story can be told from many different angles. I was fascinated by the way the information was procured; how it went from being an event on the ground to a headline. I wanted to be part of that cycle, to be one of the preservers of fact and to carefully disseminate it.

I credit my father's obsessive news consumption for this epiphany. I can count the number of days on one hand when our house sat silent without the jingle from news channels filling each room. One could hear the same jingle everywhere: in barbershops, small restaurants, and offices. The TV screens in Pakistan were always lit, except for the few times they went blank, and not because of electricity cuts.

Pakistani journalists protest against difficult working conditions in Karachi (photo: Ilyas Dean/Dean Pictures/imago image)
Targeted by the "state within the state": according to the international NGO Reporters without Borders, the situation of press freedom in Pakistan has deteriorated since the last parliamentary election campaign in July 2018. Media critical of the country's government or its powerful military are targeted by the latter. Censorship and even violence is directed towards those who report on movements fighting for the rights of minorities or outlets that mention the imprisoned former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan ranks 145th out of 180 in the global press freedom rankings issued annually by the organisation

In 2019, interviews with politicians were taken off air. One interview with former President Asif Ali Zardari on Geo News was cut-off midstream. Indeed, Pakistan's media often feels like one big TV with the remote control not in the hands of the public, but the powerful.

Harassed and threatened

Pakistan also has a problem of self-censorship to avoid political backlash or funding cuts. There are certain issues that will not be reported on, some opinions that will never reach another's eyes or ears, certain truths that will grow old with the journalist. "Stop covering unwelcome stories or your family won't find you alive," is a line often heard.

In a field where one can be punished for simple truths, jailed, or harassed for posing questions the public wants answers to, and imprisoned or fined for speaking out against institutions, there is little space to be creative. I know this because my colleagues have faced this. There have been frantic "search missions" for colleagues who disappeared while working on a story and re-surfaced days later, like the journalist Matiullah Jan.

The word "free" means different things to different people. For some in journalism, it means open and transparent access to information. But for others, it is the "freedom" to go home, not to be abducted, to remain alive. After all, if seekers of truth are killed, who will seek their truth?

PAKISTAN: It is extremely disturbing that a media group has been reduced to censoring its own star journalist simply because he defended his fellow journalists against violence by the security services,” said the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. :

— Hamid Mir (@HamidMirPAK) June 2, 2021


Pushing the boundaries

There is freedom to report on acceptable, prescribed topics without addressing taboos or challenging the status quo. But this freedom is gendered. I think this also played a role in my choice of career. I wanted to see if I could push beyond the lines drawn in the profession.

I first realised this when I interviewed a politician for a story that tied him to a crime. He did not give me much, but I felt a sense of achievement holding this powerful man somewhat accountable with my probing. I was quite satisfied when the article was published. Not everyone was. My parents questioned my choice of topic and interviewee. "Be careful," they said, "We don't want you to work on topics like this, it could be dangerous. These politicians are no joke."

I was furious. The quotes from the politician were put in verbatim, the story was fact checked, I did not have anything to worry about. It dawned on me later: it does not take much for a journalist in Pakistan to garner the wrong kind of attention and eventually land in danger.

Infographic showing selected countries ranking in the RSF 2021 World Press Freedom Index (source: DW)
On a tight leash: "Journalists in Pakistan are free to pitch certain stories, get unfettered access to political parties and candidates, but never free enough to question the military. Never free enough to address topics like marital rape, never free enough to pitch the creative, imaginative, and innovative stories they would like to," writes Warda Imran

Censored and replaced

A second realisation came soon after. A female colleague and I had penned a piece about the trial of an untouchable business tycoon in Pakistan.

Minutes after it was published, I was summoned by the editor-in-chief and warned that such stories should not carry a woman's by-line. If the tycoon pressed charges for the story – which he often did – the author would have to be answerable. "Of course, sir," I said, "that's part of the job. I firmly believe that we have nothing to fear as long as we are delivering impartial information."

"No," he said, "I would not allow my daughter if she were in your place to pursue this story," he completed. "I am not your daughter, sir, I am working here as a professional," I stressed respectfully. The next day's paper carried a truncated version of the article with a male colleague's name. Our names had been erased.

Journalists in Pakistan are free to pitch certain stories, get unfettered access to political parties and candidates, but never free enough to question the military. Never free enough to address topics like marital rape, never free enough to pitch the creative, imaginative, and innovative stories they would like to. Journalists in Pakistan are free enough until their chains pull them back.

Warda Imran

© Deutsche Welle 2021