What is behind the crackdown on freedom of speech in Pakistan?

Supporters of ruling PML-N hold signs as they protest Supreme Court's decision to not allow deposed PM Nawaz to lead his party, in Karachi, Pakistan on February 22, 2018 [Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]
Supporters of ruling PML-N hold signs as they protest Supreme Court’s decision to not allow deposed PM Nawaz to lead his party, in Karachi, Pakistan on February 22, 2018 [Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

Last week, a journalist was suspended after he asked Pakistan’s military spokesperson, Major General Asif Ghafoor, an uncomfortable question.

“Now that Nawaz Sharif has been sidelined, and former President Asif Zardari is about to be, maybe you should take care of the scourge called Imran Khan, too, as he will not spare anyone either?” Express News reporter Ahmed Mansoor asked at a press conference.

His comment implied what many in Pakistan have been wondering about: the perceived meddling of the security establishment in politics to pave the way for its favourite candidate, Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI), to win the upcoming general election. And it seems Mansoor’s question was not well-received.

His suspension comes at the backdrop of a months-long crackdown on the freedom of expression in Pakistan in advance of the July 25 vote. For those who follow Pakistan’s domestic affairs closely, it is clear that this effort to silence independent voices in the media is part of an attempt to unlawfully engineer the country’s political landscape.

Controlling the public narrative

Today, it is quite difficult to steer the public discourse in Pakistan in one direction. Gone are the days when there was only one state-owned television channel that tightly controlled what people were allowed to hear or believe.

Pakistan now has dozens of independent news channels, and thanks to high mobile and internet penetration, the public lives and breathes politics. News shows are the most popular form of entertainment, and a vibrant social mediaallows the public to follow and comment on minute-to-minute developments. Conversations on militancy, foreign policy and court cases of politicians are staples at work, the dinner table and social gatherings.

As a result of all this, the general public has acquired a certain level of independence of thought and is no longer buying official narratives.

And despite the presence of security-establishment-friendly journalists and anchors, who push a certain discourse and observe the red lines, there are still some others who continue to do factual reporting.

That is why, in an effort to the reign in the “runaway” narrative before the elections, a brutal crackdown on media houses and journalists was unleashed.

In April, Geo TV, the most critical of the lot and the market leader,…

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