On October 30, the entrance to Pakistan’s Parliament House, in Islamabad, was bustling with journalists, parliamentarians, and political activists. But rather than reporting, the journalists were protesting. A few sat on the ground, making pakodas—a South Asian fried snack—while others, placards in hands, chanted angry slogans.
The reporters had gathered to protest random and immediate layoffs by their media organizations. Over the past few weeks, dozens of journalists had been fired, their employers said, because of “financial crunch.” A television news channel shut down; salaries at several others remain either unpaid or have been drastically cut.
“It is the worst financial crisis the media industry has seen since it was liberalized,” Afzal Butt, the president of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, says. (Pakistani broadcast media, previously under the exclusive control of the government, was in 2002 opened up to private ownership.) But the financial paralysis of news outlets has not been entirely a function of the market. It has been a direct result of the government’s recent austerity measures.
Over the summer, the government—the biggest source of advertising revenue for media organizations—stopped paying what it owed. “News media in Pakistan, despite knowing its drawbacks, still rely heavily on government advertisements and subsidies,” Saroop Ijaz, Human Rights Watch’s Pakistan reporter, says. At the time, the cut-off was seen as part of a broad effort by Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who was elected prime minister in August, to slash government expenditures.
Yet many journalists and free-press activists believe the motivation was more sinister. In their view, the government has attempted to financially squeeze dissenting voices among the news media. “It’s not like a flash flood that caught townspeople by surprise,” Butt says. “It’s a properly planned crisis orchestrated by several state organs.”
Pakistan’s government has stifled reporters and other critics before. Other methods have included arrest, prohibitions on leaving the country, abductions, and violent attacks. Pakistan’s military, which wields significant influence over civilian matters, “quietly, but effectively, restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters,” according to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Around 60 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992, and CPJ estimates that the military, government, or associated political groups were responsible for half of those killed in the past decade.
Matiullah Jan, an Islamabad-based television journalist known for his pro-democracy views, was among the first victims of the layoffs this fall. Previously, he says, officials would directly threaten journalists to gag criticism—something Jan believes he experienced last year, when two men on motorbikes pulled up next to the vehicle he and his children were traveling in and smashed the windshield with a rock. “Now they are using sophisticated methods to trigger a financial crisis,” he says.
In addition to limiting advertising, Jan explains, the government can attempt to bring down networks’ ratings by shuffling channel assignments—making shows difficult to find—or pressuring cable operators to take critical news channels off the air (both of which happened to Pakistani TV network Geo this spring), or limiting circulation of certain newspapers.
One of the newsrooms that believes itself to have been targeted by financial suppression is Dawn, Pakistan’s largest and most respected English-language daily paper. In 2016, Cyril Almeida, a reporter for Dawn, reported leaks from the proceedings of a national security council meeting, during which the government confronted military leadership over inaction against certain terrorist groups. “Dawn leaks” became a major political talking point, and led Pakistan’s information minister to resign. During a government-commissioned inquiry into the matter, Dawn editors refused to name their sources, and Almeida was temporarily barred from leaving the country. Since then, the paper claims, government officials have choked the paper’s circulation, barring its distribution in several cities and military cantonments, special zones across the country that are controlled and managed by the armed forces. In September, Almeida was hit with treason charges, and was again barred from leaving the country, this time because of an interview published in May in which he quoted Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, implicitly criticizing the military for its policies on terrorism.
Matiullah Jan believes that the military and Khan’s party, the Pakistan Justice Movement, are in cahoots to suppress the critical press. “Something strange has happened,” Jan says. “In the previous government there was a clear divide between the military and the civilians which was often expressed publicly; however, the current government and the military are on the same page when it comes to freedom of expression.”
There is some evidence to support this theory. This fall, in addition to media layoffs, reports surfaced that Khan’s administration was attempting to exert increased control over social media. This was not a first: a group of bloggers claims they were abducted in January by military-intelligence for critical Twitter and Facebook posts, and this spring the Pakistan military’s director general of public relations distributed photos of journalists, including Jan, whom he accused of spreading “anti-state” propaganda by sharing material from an alleged Twitter troll. But since taking office, Khan has led his government to seek more direct means of control. In November, Fawad Chaudhry, the information and broadcasting minister, announced that the administration was considering creating a new body to regulate social media along with broadcast, print, and digital content, which are already overseen by other government agencies.
The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors expressed grave concerns over Chaudhry’s proposal. “History suggests that a push for media regulation by the state is often only a pretext for greater state control of the media,” the editors of Dawn wrote in a scathing editorial. (Information Ministry officials did not respond to a request for comment.)
Back at parliament, in October, the protesting reporters demanded that the government stop forcing news outlets to downsize. “Before punishing the owners and the management of TV channels and newspapers … the government should have mulled over its consequences, which has resulted in non-payment of salaries to media staff and sacking of hundreds of journalists,” Afzal Butt told local journalists.
The outcry over the media layoffs eventually prompted a response from Chaudhry, who announced in November that Khan had asked all government departments to clear their outstanding advertising dues with news organizations.
And the targeting of journalists who criticize Pakistan’s leadership has continued. Murtaza Solangi, a veteran journalist, was pressured in October by station management to leave Capital TV, where he was the Islamabad bureau chief and hosted a prime-time show, over tweets critical of the government’s security policies and military intervention in state politics. Recently, he was alerted via Twitter that the government had reported one of his tweets—defending a human rights activist—for violating Pakistani law. This month, it was reported that Twitter sent several other emails to journalists and activists informing them of the same thing.
For Solangi, the problem appears rooted in shifting strategic dynamics as Pakistan moves away from its traditional allies in the West. He believes that Khan has his eye on China, and aims to show he can follow its lead. “China has invested billions in the country and is expected to bail Pakistan out of the current financial crisis,” Solangi says.
China, Solangi believes, has influenced the government to move away from press freedom. “Previously, the trade agreements with Europe were often linked to Pakistan’s progress on human rights and freedom of expression, which ensured a constant check and balance system.” Solangi says. “With China, that is not the case.”