Intimidation of dissidents has increased on multiple fronts, rights workers and journalists say. A number of rights activists have been arrested and charged with sedition. Protesters have been jailed, including a member of parliament. Newspapers and journalists have faced violence, harassment and warnings from security officials not to cover anything that might show the military in a harsh light.
Rights groups say the civilian government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, elected in 2018, has failed to protect freedom of speech, imposing legislation to restrict online media, even dictating who can appear on television talk shows, while at the same time ceding authority for curbing freedom of speech to the powerful military.
“In recent years, the space for dissent in Pakistan has shrunk to the point of suffocation,” warned Omar Warriach, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia director. “The Pakistani military has demonstrated that it can still call the shots without directly being in power. ... Taking part in a peaceful protest can now lead to arrest and charges of sedition. Many activists have been forced into exile, fearing for their safety. What was once a lively media landscape has narrowed to exclude critical voices,” he said.
Pakistan's government has denied allegations it's stifling free speech. It said it was simply cutting spending when it recently pulled all its advertising from two prominent media houses, Dawn and Jang, that frequently criticize the military’s involvement in civilian affairs. Khan's government has also criticized the previous administration for using public money on advertising to promote itself.
Government advertising is one of the leading sources of revenue for newspapers and media houses in Pakistan and is often used to squeeze critical media. In a March 2 statement, Steven Butler, the Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the government was using advertising “as a cudgel to punish and reward news outlets based on their editorial stance in this way,” and demanded the practice stop.
Butler was denied entry into Pakistan last year despite holding a valid visa. The government has remained silent on the move, but Pakistani officials say that particular decision was taken without the prime minister's knowledge. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Khan was elected in July 2018, amid widespread criticism from international rights groups and political opponents that the country’s powerful military and intelligence aided his campaign. The military was widely accused of intimidating the media and campaigning against Khan’s strongest opponent, the Pakistan Muslim League, whose leader Nawaz Sharif had fallen out with the army after openly accusing it of supporting militants.
At a recent meeting with international journalists, Khan’s adviser on communication, Firdous Ashiq Awan justified action against those who would attack the military, even charging them with sedition, saying the country’s military was sacrosanct according to the constitution.
One journalist, Aziz Memon, disappeared this month on the way to his work at a small newspaper in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province. He was found dead just hours later. A few months earlier, Memon tweeted that he had been threatened by local police and a prominent political party over his reporting.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists this week called for the arrest of Memon’s killers and strongly criticized a police report that said he died of “natural causes.” An autopsy report later listed his death as strangulation.
“The post-mortem report proves beyond a doubt that Aziz was brutally murdered,” the federation statement said. “We reiterate our demand that the authorities take urgent action to arrest the killers and those who ordered his killing.”
In other cases, intelligence agencies have reportedly forced newspaper sellers into not delivering papers to certain areas and warned television anchors against interviewing certain politicians. The military’s public relations wing, known as the Inter-Services Public Relations, has repeatedly denied interfering in television programming or disrupting newspaper distribution, although it has justified muzzling news of a dissident ethnic Pashtun movement called the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM, claiming it impacts national security, without explaining exactly how.
Authorities have often targeted the PTM, which has accused the army of using the decades-long war on terror to profile, intimidate, harass and arrest ethnic Pashtuns, who dominate Pakistan’s northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan.
In late January, a protest of barely 100 people — small by Pakistani standards — took place outside the National Press Club in the capital Islamabad to protest the arrest of a young PTM leader. The protesters had begun to disperse when police arrived, grabbing protesters and throwing them into waiting trucks.
Among the men and women rounded up was Mohsin Dawar, a member of parliament from Pakistan’s North Waziristan border region. “I said I would go with them. I wasn’t resisting, but still they grabbed me, kicked me and punched me,” he said in an interview following his release. In all, 29 people were arrested, all of them ordered released in early February by the Islamabad High Court, which reprimanded police for charging many of them with sedition, without reason.
Rights groups have also criticized the liberal use of Pakistan's sedition and anti-terrorism act. Gulalai Ismail, a rights activist, was charged under the anti-terrorism act after she criticized army actions in the border regions, including a report that complained of military harassment of women and girls, a charge the army has denied.
Ismail has fled to the United States, but her elderly parents continue to be harassed. Her father was jailed for two weeks and her mother, Uzlifat Ismail, was added to a list of individuals unable to leave Pakistan on charges of hiding her daughter.
Ismail’s father, professor Mohammad Ismail, said intelligence agents and police have raided his home in Islamabad six times without a court order. His domestic employees have been harassed and he appears regularly in court fighting charges of anti-state activities related to his support for his daughter.
Harris Khalique, head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that while previous civilian governments have at times stood up to the military to protect rights, the current prime minister has failed to do so.
“The current political government is more responsible for what is happening in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly than any one particular institution, whether it be the military or the bureaucracy," said Khalique. “At the at the end of the day they got elected to run this country, if they are ceding their space, they are equally responsible, if not more. "