Has the Pakistani media been forced to skew and censor its coverage ahead of elections in Pakistan?

Pakistan is no stranger to allegations of electoral rigging. Those on the losing end have been crying about manipulated vote counts, ballot stuffing or non-level playing fields in every single elections that has ever taken place in the country. To be fair, there seems to be a consensus, at least in the public perception, that the general elections of 1977, 1990 and 2002 were among the most heavily ‘managed’.

So it takes some doing for the upcoming elections of July 25 to be dubbed as “the dirtiest”, and “most micromanaged” in the country’s history, as the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) publicly stated last week.

What is even more remarkable is that this characterisation has been drawn before the polls have even taken place. But HRCP’s pessimism is echoed by most independent analysts and is reflected in the reporting and editorials of mainstream news outlets within Pakistan as well as the international press.

The international press may be out of the control of Pakistan’s military establishment—which has been accused directly and indirectly of being behind efforts to skew the elections—but parts of Pakistan’s independent and famously combative media have been sounding alarm bells for some time.

Acceptable narratives

In June, Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper Dawn wrote in an editorial that “Since late 2016, though with renewed and greater intensity since May 2018, the paper has been under attack in a wide-ranging and seemingly coordinated manner that includes its distribution being stopped in several areas.”

It went on to say that “a campaign of disinformation, libel and slander, hate and virtual incitement to violence against Dawn and its staff” had been unleashed and blamed the campaign on “civil-military discord and strife in [Pakistan]” in which “a free media…has embraced constitutional civilian supremacy.”

Earlier in April, Reuters published a story detailing what it said were internal directions from the management to Geo News staffers, or “key editorial points that we have to manage and implement” –essentially conditions, for the biggest independent television news channel to be restored to the cable distribution networks after alleged negotiations with military authorities.

Similar to what Dawn would face later, Geo News’ transmission had been blocked in large parts of the country by faceless operatives, usually through verbal orders and threats to cable operators. 

Geo News’ sister publications, Jang —the country’s largest Urdu newspaper—and the English language The News had also faced a blockade in certain parts of the country, particularly in military controlled cantonment areas.

At the heart of both unannounced and unofficial bans was, and is, an attempt to control the narrative around the military’s alleged interference in domestic politics.

The primary target is former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was forced to step down from his office last year after an adverse judgement from the Supreme Court, and recently jailed by a lower court for 10 years on charges of accumulating unexplained wealth.

His daughter and political heir apparent, Maryam, has also been jailed for seven years for helping to cover up his ‘misdeeds’. As far as the Sharifs or their supporters are concerned, these judgements were coerced from pliant courts and the trials did not fulfil the requirements for a fair trial.

The Geo News internal memo that Reuters detailed instructed staffers that aside from banning negative portrayals of the “establishment”—code for the military deep state—and any allegations that the Supreme Court was interfering in politics, there should be no reports that “helps build a narrative that [Nawaz Sharif] and his children are innocent.”

Dawn too cited the beginning of its problems as an October 2016 story which detailed a high level meeting in which Sharif’s government ministers allegedly dressed down the then chief of Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the ISI, for pursuing policies that were leading to Pakistan’s isolation internationally. 

The publication in May this year of an on-the-record interview with Sharif, where Sharif defended himself, was the apparent final nail in the coffin for Dawn.

Setting the stage 

Unfortunately, the removal of Sharif and media censorship is not the only perception of the military’s indirect interference. Reports have been flooding in of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) partymen being pressured to ditch their leader ahead of the elections. Some have switched sides or will run as independents, but those that resisted have had corruption cases slapped against them, have been jailed, or disqualified from contesting.

New constituency delimitations—mandated by the recent census—have also become controversial and are seen as an attempt by the military to gerrymander the electoral process.

Another coalition of small parties in Sindh province, the grandiloquently named Grand Democratic Alliance or GDA, is generally perceived to have been cobbled together by the establishment.

Earlier in March, a split was allegedly engineered in the PML-N in the province of Balochistan, which effectively weakens its standing and provides another bloc of malleable candidates.

Other parties, like the Pakistan Peoples Party—which has its base in Sindh—have also not only indicated similar pressures on their candidates, but also named some of the intelligence operatives allegedly involved in the manipulations.

A number of religious hardliners—some of them UN-designated terrorists and accused of sectarian militancy—have been cleared to participate in the elections after being on internal security watchlists. While military proxies explain this as ‘mainstreaming' radicals, most civilian analysts see this as another attempt to eat up Sharif’s conservative bloc in his home base of Punjab.

If all this were not enough, a controversial high court judge recently went public with serious allegations that military operatives were dictating judgements to the judiciary, designed specifically to keep the Sharifs from campaigning in the elections.

In probably the most surreal example of such engineering, one PMLN candidate from southern Punjab publicly alleged that he had been beaten by intelligence operatives from the ISI, pressuring him to change loyalties.

The day after his message went viral on the media, he recanted—ostensibly under further pressure—and blamed the agriculture department for beating him up. This has led to a running joke in political circles, with ‘agriculture department’ now being used as a euphemism for the ISI.

All of this has led to allegations that the military is attempting to put in place former cricketer Imran Khan—who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)—as the next prime minister and that all the electoral engineering is for his benefit, or to engineer a weak and pliant parliament.

Khan’s large number of supporters see him as a welcome alternative to the corruption-tainted political elite, but among his detractors he is widely seen as the ‘ladla’ or ‘blue-eyed boy’ of the military establishment, willing to do whatever it takes to come to power.

Not only has he embraced the same lot of “corrupt” politicians he long decried—he now says they are ‘necessary evils’ since they know how to win elections—he has also not shied away from using dangerous blasphemy allegations against his biggest rival Nawaz Sharif to court the radical religious vote.

Burden of proof 

It is in this environment that Pakistan’s media is operating and attempting to report. Many of the stories detailed above can only be hinted at in oblique terms within Pakistan, because any criticism of the powerful military can have serious consequences.

Both Dawn and the Jang Group have faced a cut in advertising revenues because of pressure  exerted on advertisers and ad agencies.

But even more seriously, campaigns have been launched on social media platforms labeling them as anti-state and traitors in the pay of arch-enemy India or other foreign intelligence agencies.

Imran Khan has been at the forefront of attacks on both Geo and Dawn. In fact, the demonisation of a critical media seems straight out of the playbook of US President Donald Trump.

Reporting on what is actually going on in the lead up to the elections is also constrained because the constant refrain from the military and PTI supporters—who feel they are on the verge of a win—is to demand “evidence.” Of course all firsthand evidence provided by media and politicians is instantly discounted as biased against the military and PTI, the Pakistani version of Trump’s “fake news” retorts.

Not only does this fly in the face of normal journalistic practices, how do you actually produce “hard evidence” that electoral candidates have been pressured to switch loyalties, that intricate strategies for breaking vote banks have been designed, that media houses’ cash flows have been artificially impeded, that transmissions and distribution networks have been blocked through phone calls, that warnings are regularly conveyed to reporters and editors about which stories to run or not?

There are some things that seem self-evident. The temporary disappearance last year of about half a dozen bloggers critical of the military was only among a large number of such still “unexplained” abductions of political activists.

When they do return, as in the case of India-Pakistan peace activist Raza Mehmood Khan who returned home last week after some seven months of disappearance or Gul Bukhari a political activist who was briefly picked up and detained, they are often too scared about their future safety or too traumatised to talk openly to the media. But even those that do and name the country’s security agencies for their disappearance—as some of the bloggers did—they are immediately dubbed as agents of foreign powers, driven by an agenda.

No “evidence” is ever enough.

Pakistani media has a long history of combating state restrictions, even under direct military rule. Journalists have endured jail and even brutal floggings to win the press freedoms they jealously guard. They have sidestepped restrictions and learnt the art of informing their readers despite direct censorship. But this is a new beast the media has to contend with, one that stays in the shadows and does not show its face directly. The fear it inspires is why international bodies are pointing towards a rising tide of self-censorship in Pakistani media.

Some journalists, are fighting back. 

A number of prominent writers and TV anchors took to social media after their regular columns or TV programmes were dropped or not aired by different media houses, due to external pressures on those organisations.

Some veteran journalists feel the current situation for the media is even worse than it was under martial law. But it’s only a matter of time before the Pakistani media figures out how to force the beast into the harsh light of day. The beast fears the light. Because in the light the fear dissipates.

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