A Snapshot of Media Freedom in Pakistan

A Snapshot of Media Freedom in Pakistan

Media freedom in Pakistan is fickle.

The letter of the law states that the government is allowed to place “reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan or public order or morality,” but in practice, the word “reasonable” seems to exit the equation. Former military leader Pervez Musharraf increased the freedom of the press before his departure as president in 2008, allowing reporters to be more vocal in their criticism of the government and its actions. Yet, public and military officials continue to control and manipulate the media for their own interests in the name of morality, patriotism and national interest. Unless honest politicians and a critical mass of people rise up against the current state of journalistic affairs and implement true reforms, media freedom will continue to be undermined in this budding democracy.

The stories that prove most newsworthy are those that shine a light on the absurd acts of censorship that render the concept of free media in Pakistan a joke. Toward the end of 2011, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked text messages that contained any one of a list of 1,600 words considered offensive. This list, as it turned out, was lifted from a set of words banned from the United States’ National Football League (NFL) jerseys. Within Pakistan, many speculated that this ban arose from President Asif Ali Zardari’s irritation with being the butt of bawdy jokes that were spread among the cell phone-using population via text messages, motivating him to seek the ban and curb his embarrassment.

In 2010, the PTA reacted to a Facebook campaign called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” by blocking not only the social networking site, but also YouTube, Wikipedia and several other websites occasionally used to disseminate criticism of the Pakistani government. The government took this opportunity to use censorship in its favor under the guise of protecting the nation from a campaign of blasphemy.

The justification of protecting any arguable national interest is at the heart of censorship in Pakistan and its use by civilian government bodies such as the PTA. Officials such as Zardari are merely the popular and publicized episodes of this ongoing drama. Thus, criticisms of government officials are allowed to broadcast on Pakistan’s many TV news networks, which are free to have biases toward any of the political parties, none of which permanently dominate the governing landscape. The real threat – the underlying implementation of censorship that has remained constant throughout the decades of Pakistan’s existence – is imposed by the real power brokers of Pakistan: the military, particularly its intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This agency has a history of controlling what the media reports by limiting the information the agency provides on military activities, but this is expected of such an entity in any nation. Far worse, the ISI continues to threaten, torture and kill journalists whose reports harm the reputation of the military. In the past decade, the military tried to prevent reports that draw ties between the Pakistani military and militant groups operating along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the 10 years since the United States launched a military campaign in Afghanistan in cooperation with Pakistan, the ISI has accumulated a lot to hide in terms of its relationship with America’s professed enemies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. funneled money through the ISI to mujahedeen groups in Afghanistan, funding a conflict with the invading Soviet forces. When the conflict ended in 1989, the U.S. withdrew its financial support. Soon after the U.S. achieved its goal of completing a proxy war against the Soviets, it placed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear program, souring what was once a functional relationship. A decade later, after 9/11, the U.S. turned to Pakistan again, requesting direct cooperation with the military in the war against the Taliban. The U.S. did this despite the natural assumption that Pakistan would side with its neighbors and continuing allies, the Afghan militants. Nevertheless, the U.S. needed a regional ally and Pakistan, despite its conflict of interest, wanted military aid from the U.S. After being used, reused and abused, and with a dwindling tolerance of U.S. policy among the populace, Pakistan’s military still had a strong reason to keep up the farce of its cooperation with the U.S.

That meant that journalists in Pakistan had to be controlled. In the years since Musharraf ‘s measures to free up the media, reporters had, from the ISI’s standpoint, gone out of control with their criticism of the military. Though the ISI controlled the dissemination of news to journalists at the point of access, on the warfront, stories unflattering to military agencies still came out through unsanctioned sources. Journalists were relating specific instances in which the ISI was directly hindering the U.S. war effort by assisting groups directly opposed to the U.S.

One such reporter was Syed Saleem Shahzad, who reported on a militant group’s insiders in the Pakistan navy. In a piece for the Asia Times in May 2011, Shahzad wrote, “It was clear the militants were receiving good inside information as they always knew where the suspects were being detained, indicating sizeable al-Qaeda infiltration within the navy’s ranks.”

Just days after his report was published, Shahzad was found tortured and killed after receiving several death threats from ISI personnel. Shahzad’s death was just weeks after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without the help of the Pakistani military. This came at a time when the U.S. government was publically fed up with the ISI’s two-facedness. Then-director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Time, “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets.” This gave the ISI good reason to try and stem any future reports on military activities that would further aggravate its false alliance with the U.S.

Shahzad was one of seven journalists killed in Pakistan in 2011, making it the worst country for journalists for a second year in a row, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. No one was held accountable for many of these deaths. The landscape remains a precarious one for journalists who dare to report on the ISI’s activities.

While some journalists are kept from reporting honestly through fear instilled by events such as Shahzad’s slaying, another segment is entirely convinced that shelving certain stories that may compromise the position of the military is in the national interest. Thus, they neglect to report on certain stories as an expression of patriotism. If this segment of the media receives information extraneous to the reports given to it by the military, it will refuse to augment its stories to report more of the truth. It is the same attitude that led the All Pakistan Cable Operators Association (APCOA) to once again put Pakistan’s flawed concept of media freedom into international headlines in November 2011. The group blocked access to the BBC World News cable channel to prevent the broadcast of a BBC documentary called “Secret Pakistan,” which detailed the ISI’s double game with the U.S. and militant groups during U.S. military operations in Pakistan. A representative of the APCOA dubbed the documentary “anti Pakistan propaganda.” The comments section of an article reporting this item on Pakistan’s Tribune website sparked a debate on the integrity of this action, with sentiments ranging from, “I admire these gentlemen for showing patriotism and I don’t think it is blind or anything,” to, “Do you want to live in a place where no outside voice can be heard?”

In two distinct ways, the military, the true governing force in Pakistan, has managed to keep stories of its questionable alliances and operations from entering the sphere of journalism in Pakistan, all in the name of keeping secret a friendship that America would find highly unpalatable. The question remaining is: Whom are they fooling?

The involved governments and militaries have known the story told by “Secret Pakistan” since the outset of the war in Afghanistan. Cables leaked in the highly publicized WikiLeaks case showed that U.S. intelligence knew that Pakistan’s military was maintaining cooperative ties with militant groups, but without another option, the U.S. proceeded to treat Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror. In the past year, the cracks in this flawed partnership have been exposed and broadened. Pakistan froze joint operations with the CIA in January after a CIA operative killed two Pakistani men who turned out to be working for the ISI. In May, the U.S. found bin Laden hiding practically in plain sight near a military installation in Pakistan. Two months later, President Barack Obama cut military aid to Pakistan. The U.S. became very vocal in its criticism of Pakistani military cooperation. In the months leading up to his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September, Admiral Michael Mullen made several claims about ISI links to terrorist groups, stating, “The Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” and later that the killing of Shahzad “was sanctioned by the [Pakistan] government.” Finally, a U.S. military operation gone awry resulted in the deaths of two-dozen Pakistani soldiers in November, leading Pakistan to pull out of diplomatic talks.

New points of contention continue to fray the bonds between the U.S. and Pakistan. With bin Laden killed and the U.S. and NATO allies beginning to withdraw troops from the region, the U.S. has achieved its goal in Pakistan. Despite Pakistan’s untrustworthiness to the U.S., the geographically strategic ally has proven useful. Decisions on the future success of Pakistan’s eternal goal of receiving aid will remain with the U.S., which is embittered by the dealings of the past decade. At the close of 2011, the U.S. cut $700 million in aid to Pakistan, and may exact penalties comparable to the nuclear sanctions of the 1990s in the coming year.

Political turmoil has returned once again in Pakistan, with the military calling for the ouster of President Zardari. This comes in the wake of allegations that his Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) sought U.S. assistance in preventing a military coup after his administration was weakened by its lack of involvement in the killing of bin Laden. In time, a new civilian government, seemingly a group led by former cricketer Imran Khan, will take the PPP’s place.

Though Khan enjoys popular support and serves as an inspirational character to a public beleaguered by untrustworthy leadership, the extent of change that he can effect is yet to be seen. If a perfect storm of public outrage, a strong civilian government and a weakening of the military’s political control were to occur, perhaps there is a chance that Pakistan will achieve something further resembling a democracy. However, if things continue going in the direction they have been in the past decades, it’s likely the current balance of power will remain.

Abdullah Saeed is a Pakistani-American journalist and musician. He resides in New York and is an avid collector of music.

Special thanks to Saadia Toor, author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, 2011

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on