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Media and Social Media Platforms in Pakistan Face Increasing Restrictions

"The Democracy Index 2023 downgraded Pakistan from a ‘hybrid regime' to an ‘authoritarian regime.’ Currently, Pakistan is categorised as an authoritarian regime where there is no free speech," journalist Hamid Mir said.
Information Minister of Pakistan caretaker government, Murtaza Solangi. Photo: X/@nguramani

Karachi: In recent days, the interim government in Pakistan has imposed stricter restrictions on social media and the conventional media as well. Notably, the government has blocked access to social media platform X (previously known as Twitter) though it occasionally remains accessible.

This crackdown began on February 8, 2024, the day of Pakistan’s election, when mobile services and social media were initially suspended. Surprisingly, these suspensions have persisted continuously since then.

Amidst censorship challenges, Pakistan struggles to preserve free speech, which has become increasingly difficult as dozens of journalists and media professionals have received notices from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for participating in an “explicit and malicious campaign” against judges of Supreme Court of Pakistan. Recently, two journalists were arrested, one of them was released after hours.

Since journalists started criticising the unfair treatment towards Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leaders, and restrictions were imposed on discussions of the allegations of rigged election and media and journalists, in general, tensions have escalated.

Hamid Mir, a prominent senior journalist, who faces restrictions and in 2014 was shot and wounded for his free speech, continues to highlight issues despite these challenges. Mir spoke to The Wire about the restrictions on Pakistani TV media, where journalists are “not allowed to pronounce the name of Imran Khan”.

“Only a small number of journalists, including myself can mention Imran Khan by name on the TV show; others refer to him as chairman of PTI,” Mir said. This stricter censorship on media even extends to naming political party leaders.

“Pakistan interim government Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar claims that ‘Pakistani media is freer than the West.’ The fact of the matter is social media is restricted and journalists cannot mention Imran Khan by his name,” he added.

Post imposition of the social media restrictions and internet shutdowns, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “We are concerned by any reports of restrictions on the exercise of the freedom of expression and association in Pakistan, including the partial or complete government-imposed internet shutdown, which includes, of course, on social media platforms.”

Unannounced censorship tightens grip in Pakistan

Afrasiab Khattak, senior politician and analyst, warns of growing authoritarianism, exemplified by escalating media censorship under the caretaker government. This crackdown includes restrictions on mainstream and social media, notably the unprecedented blocking of platform X.

This suppression of free speech is alarming as platform X is vital for journalists, activists and citizens to express themselves freely.

Also read: Pakistan: The Only Certainty After a Rigged Election Is Chaos

Information minister of caretaker government, Murtaza Solangi told Dawn, “Internet services and X are two separate things. As a minister, I didn’t suspend X.”

At a literature event in Islamabad, Mir mentioned, he highlighted the presence of unannounced censorship in Pakistan in Solangi’s presence. The minister remained silent and didn’t comment on the issue, Mir said.

Notably, the minister’s denial contradicts the suspension of mobile services and internet. This action also violated a decision by the Sindh High Court, which ordered not to suspend internet and mobile services.

When asked about Solangi’s denial, Mir’s response underlines that it is the establishment that actually runs the system, not Solangi. Mir said, “Pakistanis know what fact is. Those who brought him, including all those who control the interim government, he is their spokesperson and they both speak lie.”

Asad Ali Toor, independent journalist, who was beaten in 2021 for his work, was recently interrogated by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for hours after he spoke out vocally about the rigged elections. “He (Solangi) does not speak the truth,” Toor said, adding that the Pakistan interim government even “refused to accept that Baloch women were tortured in Islamabad.”

The caretaker government attempted to suppress criticism and manipulate the elections results in their favour but they failed to silence critics and achieve their desired outcome.

In coming days, strict restrictions and laws to be imposed on media

Khattak said that unfortunately, these political parties which will be forming the government in coming days, like Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) [PMLN], Pakistan People’s Party [PPP], and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (Pakistan) [MQM-P] are yet to criticise these constraints.

“Previously, we used to refer to parties like Pakistan Muslim League (Q) [PML-Q] as the ‘King’s party’. Now, we have witnessed most political parties become King’s party, and regrettably, they have accepted such restrictions on free speech,” said Khattak.

He added, “By accepting the results of the rigged elections, which has further distorted the political culture. They seem to prioritise power over the preservation of free speech. The military establishment holds significant power and allows governance only on their terms.”

Khattak suggested that this restriction trend does not appear to be ending anytime soon and Pakistan needs a new struggle for democracy and free speech. Similarly, Toor pointed out that the cases of curbing free speech and media will increase and he feared that the new government may impose stricter restrictions and laws on social media and traditional media.

Attacking the governments in Pakistan, Mir said that in the recent times, every government – including those led by Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Shahbaz Sharif or caretaker regime – has curbed free speech more severely than the previous one. “Consequently, Pakistani media will likely face even harder times regarding free speech in future,” said Mir.

“The Democracy Index 2023 downgraded Pakistan from a ‘hybrid regime’ to an ‘authoritarian regime.’ Currently, Pakistan is categorised as an authoritarian regime where there is no free speech,” Mir said. “But still journalists, despite the risks, continue to speak the truth,” he added.


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