One year ago this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan sat next to U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House and declared to reporters that Pakistan has “one of the freest presses in the world.” He added: “So to say that there are curbs on [Pakistan’s] press is a joke.”
In reality, there’s nothing funny about the state of Pakistan’s media environment today. The apparent abduction on July 21 of a prominent journalist, Matiullah Jan, in broad daylight in Islamabad underscores the perils of a Pakistani media climate victimized by a broader, and increasingly robust, crackdown on dissent.
According to local and international news reports, Jan was picked up outside the school where his wife, Kaneez Sughra, works. Sughra told Deutsche Welle: “The doors of his car were open, and the keys were still inside. … I could see from the car that he was taken forcibly.” Fortunately, later in the day, Jan was released. On July 23, he released a video on his YouTube channel in which he described his ordeal. He said that “those who kidnapped me are the same forces who have been against democracy” in Pakistan. “Police uniform or plain clothes, these days everyone is on the same page.” But if history is any guide, there will be little effort to investigate and hold accountable those behind the incident.
Jan has long been a sharp critic of the Pakistani state, including a military that is violently allergic to public criticism. He was fired from his job as a TV anchor in 2018, a move many believe was made under military pressure. Earlier this month, a tweet he posted about the judiciary prompted the Supreme Court to issue a contempt of court notice against him—certainly not the first time Pakistani courts have used this tactic against the press. He was scheduled to attend a hearing on July 22.
Jan’s brief disappearance comes at a moment when Islamabad is stepping up efforts to stifle dissent, thereby exposing the fragility of democracy in a nation still struggling to shake off the legacy of military rule.
Pakistan is home to a lively press with dozens of private print and broadcast outlets and many new online portals. It is willing and able to expose, critique, and hound—so long as it avoids red lines. One of these red lines is criticism of the military and intelligence agencies. If you breach that line, all bets are off.
Over the last few years, broadcast media outlets perceived to be unfriendly to the state have mysteriously gone off the air, and print outlets have had their distribution interrupted. An investigation by the Pakistani media watchdog Freedom Network found that 33 journalists in Pakistan were killed due to their work between 2013 and 2019—and not one perpetrator was successfully convicted. Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Pakistan 145 out of 180 nations—a three-place drop from its already dismal 2019 ranking.
Intensifying threats and intimidation tactics—from withholding advertising revenue to waging hate campaigns on social media—against Pakistani outlets and journalists have resulted in extensive self-censorship by journalists and editors on content related to security institutions. Social media, one of the sole remaining bastions in Pakistan for dissenting views, is increasingly in the crosshairs of the state. Authorities have used a 2016 cybercrimes law, which is supposed to target online sexual harassment and terrorist groups’ internet activities, as a pretext to crack down on online content—including the banning of thousands of websites—critical of the government. In May, Twitter, Zoom, and Periscope suddenly went down in Pakistan at the very moment when prominent anti-military critics were hosting a conference on Zoom, prompting accusations that Islamabad was censoring the conference.
These press crackdowns play out against a broadening assault on dissent in Pakistan that has targeted journalists but also academics, activists, and nongovernment organizations. The campaign began during the previous Pakistani government, and it has continued if not intensified in the Khan era.
One of the biggest victims of this crackdown is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a nonviolent organization that champions the rights of ethnic Pashtuns, a minority that suffers from discrimination and is often targeted by the state, and that harshly critiques the military. PTM leaders and members are often arrested, media coverage of their protests is frequently banned, and social media campaigns demonize them as violent thugs bankrolled by Indian and Afghan intelligence. Branding critics as terrorists or agents of foreign powers is an increasingly common tactic.
The state is tightening the screws because it can. The military, the most powerful political player in Pakistan under any circumstances, has been particularly emboldened since Khan took power. Khan largely sees eye to eye with the military, and the prime minister has not resisted the military’s accumulation of more and more influence over public policy—including the domestic policy portfolio, which is often ceded to civilian leaders. The influential new National Development Council, established in 2019 and charged with setting long-term economic policy, features Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, as a member. Last November, a retired lieutenant general, Asim Saleem Bajwa, was appointed chair of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority, a new body that oversees the Pakistan component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—a critically important project for Pakistan.
In effect, the military, stronger than ever, is fully empowered to engineer state crackdowns on the dissent that has long galled it. This is not to absolve the civilian leadership of responsibility, which has—among others things—proposed curbs on media reporting of opposition politicians accused of corruption and approved a plan for new fast-track media courts.
To be sure, Pakistan’s war on dissent is also a reflection of the world’s illiberal moment, with ascendant authoritarianism assaulting freedoms across the globe. But Pakistan is not a case of a long-established democracy falling prey to illiberal forces. It’s a case of an illiberal state struggling to consolidate the small but real democratizing steps it has taken in recent years. These include a constitutional amendment, ratified in 2010, that devolves more power to provincial governments (and which Islamabad has recently criticized, citing the difficulties it poses to crafting a national response to the coronavirus pandemic), as well as 12 consecutive years of civilian rule (which the military undermines through its ever-expanding footprint in public policy).
The assault on press freedoms and other democratic principles in Pakistan also undercuts a prominent state narrative of the day—one frequently articulated by government officials in speeches and interviews and echoed by many Pakistani citizens, including those who are no fans of their government: Pakistan has moved on from its troubled past; it has become a more stable, safe, and tolerant place; and this stands in sharp contrast to an Indian state that has morphed into a fascist nightmare.
To be sure, on some levels, Pakistan has changed for the better. Anti-state terrorism has receded, major cities are safer, and new industries—particularly in the high-tech sector—are flourishing. India, meanwhile, has changed for the worse, as New Delhi’s ever-expanding Hindu nationalist agenda promotes intolerance and discrimination and has stoked communal violence—not to mention increasing crackdowns on the press.
But the notion that Pakistan has turned the corner on its authoritarian and intolerant past is wildly false. And that’s an inconvenient truth for a state singing a positive tune as part of a high-priority effort to repair Pakistan’s global image.
Instead, the perilous plight of the Pakistani press is an unsettling reminder that despite Islamabad’s talk of “Naya Pakistan” (a ruling party slogan that means “New Pakistan”), the problematic policies of the past die hard.
Back in 2005, during the last period of Pakistani military rule, Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani human rights activist who died in 2018, gave an address at the Wilson Center in Washington. “If you want to be with the establishment, the sky is the limit,” she said, referring euphemistically to the military. “But if you don’t agree with the establishment, you won’t be able to do an honest day’s work.”
Fifteen years later, her words still ring true.