Gul Bukhari, a harsh critic of the military and its alleged meddling in politics, said there was an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” in the media and politics in the run-up to Pakistan’s July 25 general election. “I feel very insecure. I have restricted my son’s movement. I worry every time my husband or I go out,” Bukhari said, adding that she now often sends live updates on her whereabouts via WhatsApp to a friends and family group.
The military has denied playing any role in Bukhari’s disappearance. “We have nothing to do with it,” said army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor days afterwards. He added that the incident should be investigated.
Ghafoor’s office did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment about accusations the army was stifling the media.
Since Bukhari’s abduction there have been mounting complaints from media houses and journalists about being muzzled by threats of physical and financial retribution against those who cross “red lines” in reporting about the military. Bukhari declined to go into details of her ordeal, in which she was dragged from her car and hooded before assailants dropped her back at her house four hours later. But she told Reuters her abduction could be “viewed within that context” of intimidation ahead of this month’s election. She said she has asked the police to offer her security but none has been provided. When contacted by Reuters, police had no immediate comment.
After Bukhari’s disappearance, many blamed the military. A driver who was transporting her to a Waqt TV studio at the time told colleagues afterwards that men in army uniforms stood guard while others in plainclothes dragged her from the car.
Bukhari, a dual Pakistani-British national, credits her release to swift coverage by international media outlets and a ferocious social media backlash inside Pakistan, which saw politicians and rights activists across the political spectrum voice their outrage about her disappearance on Twitter.
She said her abduction had nonetheless sent a message that “nobody is untouchable, no one is immune” ahead of polls.
“It was very audacious, it was very visible,” she said. “If there was a sense of fear, now it is complete. Now there is not just sense of fear, it’s panic.” A day before Bukhari’s abduction, Major General Ghafoor told a news conference that the military was aware of those making or re-tweeting “anti-state” comments on social media. He then displayed a web-chart with names and pictures of many prominent journalists and TV personalities. Bukhari was not on the list.
Other activists and media outlets say they feel targeted for criticizing the military. Dawn, the leading English-language newspaper which angered the army in May by publishing an interview with ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, says its deliveries have since been blocked in what it calls a “wide-ranging and seemingly coordinated” assault on the publication and its finances.
Waqass Goraya, who alleges he was tortured when he and four other bloggers were abducted for several weeks last year, accused military intelligence agents of going to his family home and threatening his parents.
“They are targeting my parents to deliver a message to me that I may be safe abroad but my family in Pakistan is not,” said Goraya, who fled Pakistan last year.
The military did not comment on Goraya’s allegations or the disruption to Dawn’s distribution.
Goraya and Bukhari, both active Twitter users, say they are also the targets of a co-ordinated trolling campaign on social media.
“The first thing I do in the morning, and sometimes last thing at night, is block and mute (on Twitter),” Bukhari said. “There is sexual abuse, threats of murder.”
Bukhari, who writes a column in the Nation newspaper, has frequently defended Sharif’s government and on social media championed a Pashtun-led rights movement that has staged nationwide rallies in protest at heavy-handed tactics in the army’s campaign against Islamist militants. Since her abduction, Bukhari has continued to tweet to her 80,500 followers about widespread allegations of military interference in politics.
“My voice has become a little different, but the content is the same,” she said.