NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

Imran Khan – a predator of press freedom?

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI government is accused of taking every pain to control the media, including the press, electronic and social media. Critics say it is not only introducing new laws to restrict the freedom of the media but also cracking down on journalists by resorting to censorship, torture and imprisonment, critics allege.

Due to this censorship and hard rules, the Reporters Without Borders has included the name of Imran Khan in the list of 37 heads of state and government who have become the “predators of press freedom” in their countries in its new report about curbs on the media published after a gap of five years.

The list includes Prime Minister Imran Khan, Indian Premier Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam among others.

“All (37) are heads of state or government who trample on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus, jailing journalists arbitrarily or inciting violence against them, when they don’t have blood on their hands because they have directly or indirectly pushed for journalists to be murdered,” the RSF alleged.

According to the RSF report, “PM Imran Khan started imposing restrictions on press freedom since coming to power after the 2018 elections. Under his rule, democratic forces have weakened. During Imran Khan’s rule, religious conservatism and the ideology of populism increased. Pro-government media and social media were promoted while independent journalists faced lawsuits, assassinations, violence and censorship. Journalists critical of the government had been harassed in various ways.”

The RSF claimed, “The country’s print, TV and social media had been banned in various ways, including blocking advertisements, shutting down TV channels, and torturing and abducting journalists. Even journalists leaving the country for security reasons were also being harassed in those countries”. The report termed the tenure of the premier as reminiscent of dictatorial regimes of the past, as freedom of the press had been suppressed in every possible way. “Free comments and public opinion on social media are being suppressed through strict social media laws. The journalists who dare to confront the trolls are being branded as anti-Pakistan and anti-Imran Khan”, the report claimed.

However, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has rejected the report. Talking to the BBC, Fawad Chaudhry termed the report “rubbish”. In a separate TV interview, he said that “Pakistan is currently facing a global propaganda war”. In a press statement, the government’s spokesperson vehemently rebutted the report. “The fact of the matter is that Pakistan has a vibrant media landscape. The liberal media policy of the government has resulted in exponential media growth. The country has 43 international media channels, 112 private TV channels, 258 FM channels and 1,569 publications. The size of the media speaks volumes about the robustness of the media in Pakistan,” it added.

On the other hand, the PML-N has termed the Reporters Without Borders report a “charge-sheet” against the PTI government. “The report says that the PTI government is worse than military dictatorships in Pakistan when it comes to press freedom. The Human Rights Watch, Pakistan Press Freedom Report and Freedom Network Report have already declared the Imran government as the worst media gagging administration in the history of the country,” Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb claimed.

Quoting from the report, she said, “It mentions that journalists are harassed, abducted and assaulted for crossing the red lines defined by the state. The report also pointed out that freedom of expression on social media is also being curbed through new dark and draconian laws. The actions by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government have not only reflected negatively on Pakistan’s journalism but also adversely affected the country’s position when it comes to the Financial Action Task Force and the GSP Plus status by the European Union,” she added.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous place for journalists. Around 138 media persons have lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020.

In a new effort to curb the press, the Punjab Assembly passed the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The bill authorised the speaker to form a judicial committee with powers of a magistrate. Journalists could be arrested without a warrant. They could also face six months in jail and a fine up to Rs10,000 for the breach of any privilege mentioned in a schedule inserted into the Privileges Act II of 1972.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Punjab Union of Journalists, Lahore Press Club and Punjab Assembly Press Gallery Committee, Electronic Media Reporters Association and South Punjab Journalists Association condemned the bill and called it an attempt to suppress the freedom of speech and expression. However, media reports said the speaker had withdrawn the bill after protests by journalists.

It is a sad fact that Imran Khan’s PTI government has set a sustained trend to curtail the independence of the media by exerting all kinds of pressure and introducing hard policies. Physical attacks on journalists are happening again and again. The purpose of the attacks is just to stop journalists from speaking the truth and performing their professional duties honestly.

The latest victim is a TV journalist, who has been summoned by the FIA for revealing information about a deceased judge, Arshad Malik, and his decision against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his programme. The FIA counterterrorism wing has asked the journalist to bring information and evidence that he shared in his show. The purpose of the order is just to control the media and journalists. Imran Khan’s PTI government is using every method to bring the media to heel, which is very undemocratic and against the Constitution. Unfortunately, Imran Khan himself has dismissed the allegations of attacks on the Pakistani press as a “joke”.

After the RSF report and other facts, Imran Khan’s PTI government should desist from introducing any anti-media laws and moves.