Wednesday, December 12, 2018
By Rabia Mehmood
As 2018 comes to a close, the civic space including for human rights work, press freedom and political dissent stands curtailed.
Over the past year, journalist and human rights defender Sanna Ejaz has been dismissed from her job, named in two police cases, and non-consensual photo shopped images of her were splashed across social media.
The attack on her has come about as a result of her affiliation with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a youth-led movement for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns. The online and offline harassment and intimidation she has faced is emblematic of the deterioration of freedom of expression faced by activists and the media across Pakistan in 2018.
Ejaz was dismissed from her job at PTV in April and says she was told that the order had come from oopar (from above).
The cross-platform smear was remarkable not just for its vileness but for how gendered it was, as anti-PTM accounts criticized her for perceived dissident politics and posters bearing her likeness were put up on multiple routes in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where such depictions are considered shameful.
Sanna is not the only woman human rights defender who has been attacked for her political views. In June, journalist Gul Bukhari, a vocal proponent of civilian supremacy was arbitrarily detained for hours and subsequently attacked online.
Another activist Saeeda Diep was the target of a malicious digital surveillance because of her campaign against enforced disappearances and her criticism of state policies as revealed by an Amnesty International investigation earlier this year.
In October, Pashtun human rights activist, Gulalai Ismail, was also placed on the so-called Exit Control List barring her from leaving the country.
The year witnessed increased level of uncertainty and fear for many activists, human rights defenders and critics — including those commenting on government policies online, protesting in support of constitutional rights, or protesting enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Despite promises by the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan of a Naya (new) Pakistan, Old Pakistan has been further entrenched. The climate of fear has further weakened the civil society and the media, thereby worsening the state of human rights in the country.
For many years, broadcast and print media have faced restrictions on the content they can print or air. But the clampdown by authorities in the digital sphere has been starker.
In the lead up to the July 25 elections, crackdown on press freedom particularly mainstream press intensified. The distribution of the Dawn was curtailed as was the broadcast of Geo.
Pressure on newsrooms has forced media outlets to self-censor and cut prominent columns as a result. At other times, the government itself blocked online content, particularly those that criticized military policies and government’s decisions. ‘Show cause’ notices by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA),to TV show hosts to not critique certain institutions like the judiciary, were frequently issued.
Since November, the government has begun complaining to Twitter about accounts they claim violate Pakistani law, including those of human rights defenders, bloggers and journalists.
Attacks on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association are often interlinked with attacks on the right to freedom of expression. Activists, students, and supporters of PTM have persistently faced intimidation and harassment by the government and law enforcement agencies while planning their gatherings in Karachi, Bannu, Swabi, Lahore — as well as afterwards. Not just PTM, other activists protesting attacks on human rights were arbitrarily detained in Lahore, Karachi and Hyderabad. In May, at a gathering of families of the forcibly disappeared, women protesters were manhandled by law enforcement agencies in Karachi. Supporters of mainstream political parties were arrested, detained and sometimes disappeared for taking part in peaceful political activities.
A few campaigns have been successful. A Baloch student, Sagheer Baloch, and the Lahore-based activist, Raza Khan, were released while there has also been a sporadic release of detainees in KP, Balochistan, and Sindh
Hayat Preghal, a Pashtun human rights defender, who is also Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, was arbitrarily detained and held in pretrial custody for three months because of his critical posts before being released on excessive bail conditions.
Some websites of religious and ethnic groups remain blocked. The Pakistan Telecom Authority blocked the website of one political party (Awami Workers Party) before the election; the website remains inaccessible via some Internet Service Providers to date.
Sedition laws along with the Pakistan Electronic Crime Act, 2016 have been used to intimidate human rights defenders, activists and opposition and to curb freedom of expression. Students and activists have reported surveillance and the interception of their communications and monitoring of their social media content by the law enforcement agencies. Increased scrutiny of NGOs escalated into clampdown on international humanitarian organizations such as Action-Aid and Plan International.
Even though the current human rights minister has made encouraging remarks, enforced disappearances continue with impunity.Despite hundreds of ongoing court cases across the country, no suspected perpetrator has been held to account.
In Karachi, Quetta, Hyderabad and Islamabad families of the disappeared organized protest camps, held demonstrations, and hosted press conferences to no avail. Some families complained of harassment by state authorities for following up on cases and publicly campaigning for their loved ones.
This year, activists were picked up from their homes and forcibly disappeared while families continued to spend Eid Holidays at protest camps demanding the return of their loved ones.
A few campaigns have been successful. A Baloch student, Sagheer Baloch, and the Lahore-based activist, Raza Khan, were released while there has also been a sporadic release of detainees in KP, Balochistan, and Sindh.
But all releases have come after intense efforts by families, friends, pressure and actions of human rights organizations.
None of the released living in Pakistan pursued legal action against their unlawful detention or spoke about their experiences for fear of retribution, including being disappeared once again
In fact, many victims of human rights violations continue to receive warnings that has meant that silence is the only acceptable position for many of the activists. And stories of enforced disappearances are rarely covered by news outlets.
All this comes despite reported promises by Prime Minister Khan that his government would uphold human rights and introduce a law to protect journalists, the “Protection of Journalists Act.”
When recently I called Sanna Ejaz to ask about status of one of the cases against her she was on her way to Bannu to apply for interim bail — the price a rights defender pays for a peaceful protest.
As 2018 comes to a close — the year when the civic space including for human rights work, press freedom and political dissent has been curtailed, — the list of stories that cannot be reported on or discussed on primetime TV shows, columnists who cannot publish their opinions, guests who cannot be invited to universities to speak to students and policies that cannot be criticized on social media is longer.
Pakistani authorities are scrutinizing media coverage of a Pashtun rights movement, blocking VOA websites and filing police cases against journalists covering local rallies.
Sailaab Mehsud of RFE/RL's Mashaal radio and Zafar Wazir of a local TV channel were identified in a police report as participants of a protest rally Saturday in Dera Ismael Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province along with nearly 20 other people. Police alleged they were chanting slogans against state institutions and inciting the public to violence.
Mehsud said he and Wazir were covering the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement rally as journalists.
About a week earlier, Pakistan ordered internet service providers to block the website of Voice of America's Urdu language service. VOA's "Deewa" news website, which primarily caters to the Pashto-speaking audience in the region around the Afghan border, has been blocked sporadically by various providers since late October.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Wednesday, "We are deeply concerned with the government of Pakistan’s attempts to block Voice of America’s Urdu and Pashtun language service websites. We call on the government of Pakistan to respect its international legal obligations regarding the right to freedom of expression, and unblock the affected websites."
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry claimed the sites were blocked for "false and prejudiced reporting."
"The stories they were doing were only projecting a particular narrative without any impartial view. There are many things happening in our country and most are positive," he said.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett said the was "troubled" by the blockage of the services in a formal statement Wednesday, but noted that their content continues to be available on an affiliated Urdu-language television station as well as radio, satellite and social media platforms.
"Our audience members count on VOA to provide factual, unbiased and objective coverage of current events, so any attempt to block our websites deprives Urdu and Pashto speakers in the region access to a trusted news source," VOA said. "In the interest of press freedom, VOA calls upon those responsible for blocking our content to immediately remove these constraints."
While Information Minister Chaudhry did not elaborate, an intelligence source told VOA on condition of anonymity that the decision to block the Urdu website was triggered by VOA's coverage of PTM, which has a tense relationship with Pakistan's military.
Nafees Takar, the head of VOA's Deewa Service, defended his service's coverage of PTM activities as journalistically warranted and balanced.
"We bring in ministers, government officials, and military statements on Twitter and the official website of ISPR (the public relations wing of the military) for balancing the PTM coverage," he said.
Urdu Service chief Kokab Farshori said PTM is an important story for his audience as well, and denied that the coverage is prejudiced.
"We regularly interview government officials and ministers. A recent press conference by the military spokesman was our lead story. So, to say we have not been balanced is not true," he said.
Rights violations alleged
Leaders of PTM claim that Pakistan's military is involved in human rights violations linked to its efforts to rid the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region of militant groups. Around 200,000 Pakistani troops are deployed in the region to "secure and control militant violence," according to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor.
PTM also claims that the military supports and protects certain militant groups even as it carries out clearing operations against others — a charge the military strongly denies. One of the movement's slogans, chanted often in its rallies, "yeh jo dehshat gardi hai, iss ke peechai wardi hai," literally means "the military uniform is behind this terrorism."
U.S. and Afghan officials routinely accuse Pakistani officials of supporting banned terror groups, but such accusations are rarely voiced by Pakistanis. That partly accounts for the close scrutiny of the group, which was warned again last week by Pakistan's military spokesman.
In a news conference Ghafoor said the state had so far taken a soft stance on PTM because of a realization that its members had suffered from 15 years of war. However, he warned PTM leaders to not cross "the line where the state may have to use force to control the situation." He did not specify what constitutes that line.
VOA block comes after PTM event
Internet users in Pakistan started reporting they could not access VOA Urdu's website a day after a news conference held by PTM leader Mohsin Dawar which the service covered and streamed live on Facebook.
PTM's activities seem to receive little news coverage in the otherwise vibrant Pakistani media.
Even though the government did not give specific examples of what it means by VOA projecting a "particular narrative," the international broadcaster has occasionally drawn criticism from some independent journalists including Zarrar Khuhro, who writes a column for Dawn newspaper, Pakistan's oldest English language daily, and co-hosts a news and current affairs show on Dawn News TV.
Khuhro went on Twitter to accuse VOA Deewa of overplaying a small protest against the Pakistan government in Washington earlier this year. Other Twitter users defended Deewa's coverage and Khuhro himself praised the broadcaster for its reporting on other issues.
"There is of course a great deal of stuff that they cover that the mainstream media in Pakistan for one reason or the other cannot cover," he said.
Pakistan ordered RFE/RL to close its Pakistan office in January, charging that its programs were "against the interest of Pakistan" and "in line with [a] hostile intelligence agency's agenda."
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent responded at the time that Radio Mashaal "serves no intelligence agency or government" and demanded that its reporters "be permitted to resume their work without fear or delay."
VOA and RFE/RL both are funded by the United States government, often creating a perception that the government dictates the news organization's editorial decisions.
However, VOA is required by law to report objectively and is protected by an editorial "firewall" from government interference.
Freedom of expression in Pakistan
The government's order blocking VOA websites comes at a time when activists claim that freedom of expression in Pakistan is under attack.
A Committee to Protect Journalists report issued in September noted that "measures to stomp out terrorism in the country have gone hand-in-hand with increased pressure on the media. The military bars access to certain areas, uses direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigates violence against reporters to prevent critical reporting."
The report acknowledged, that fewer journalists were killed in retaliation for their work in recent years.
A study produced earlier this year by Pakistani rights group Media Matters for Democracy found that "almost 88 percent of the journalist respondents claimed they had committed self-censorship in their professional news reporting. Around 79 percent said they had also self-censored their personal expression online."
The military spokesman denies that his office wants critics silenced. Information Minister Chaudhry denied there is any censorship, self or otherwise.
"Media in Pakistan is responsible and independent rather more than many other countries," he said. He called media the "fourth pillar" of state and said, "they are doing a great job."
Role of military
Senior Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Alam disagreed with the minister, saying the role of the military has expanded significantly. "They are now minutely monitoring the media with very detailed instructions," he said.
"I know because I worked there. They used to monitor our show. It happens to other TV channels as well as newspapers. My friends are editors, they give me all the details," he added.
Rights activists complain that space for freedom of expression is shrinking outside mainstream media as well.
Last month, controversy erupted at a literary festival in Lahore when several panelists were dropped at the last minute. Responding to queries about the decision, one of the organizers Salima Hashmi said:
"We left an empty chair on the stage to remind people that when Zia ul Haq was the president of this country and there was censorship, the newspapers ... published empty columns on the pages where the news should've been. And the inference is quite clear."
Haq, a military dictator, held power in Pakistan from 1977 to his death in 1988.
A digital platform called safenewsrooms.org that was launched by a Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who was forced to flee Pakistan after an attempted abduction, was blocked within weeks of its launch. Siddiqui is a strong critic of Pakistan's military.