Press freedom in Pakistan is the worst today than it has ever been before, said panelists at a talk on censorship held at the Khalili Lecture Theatre (KLT) at SOAS on Friday.
The talk titled ‘Reign of censorship: Pakistan, Kashmir and India’ featured journalist Talat Hussain, writer and academic Farzana Sheikh, British journalist Christina Lamb and former Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida.
The two-hour discussion focused largely on the history of censorship in Pakistan, and the gradual sophistication of tools used to silence journalists.
Prof Sheikh recalled a question put to Prime Minister Imran Khan about media freedom in Pakistan during his recent trip to Washington, which he dismissed as a joke and added that the Pakistani media is freer than that of the UK.
“In doing so, Mr Khan was speaking on behalf of many of his peers at the helm of increasingly authoritarian governments in South Asia. Yet for all his bombast, much of the evidence contradicts Khan’s claims,” she said, citing a 2019 Reporters Without Borders report which notes that censorship in Pakistan today is comparable to the Zia era.
Prof Sheikh spoke of the more recent disruption of artist Adeela Suleman’s display depicting extrajudicial killings at the Karachi biennale, and used it as an example of how even artistic expression is being stifled.
She also shared that blasphemy accusations are increasingly being used to silence dissent. Ms Lamb, who also co-authored ‘I Am Malala’, drew attention to the troubling and growing trend of censorship in India, where the government recently removed the citizenship of journalist Aatish Taseer after he criticised the Modi regime in a Time article.
“One of the things that shocked me is that of the journalists killed globally, the number coming from India is disturbing. I had not expected this because I still had that image that India was a place with robust media,” said Ms Lamb.
She also cited how shutting down the internet in occupied Kashmir is again a demonstration of how the Indian state is actively quashing freedom of expression.
Turning to Pakistan, Ms Lamb said that she was recently in the country when she witnessed a broadcast journalist say she was asked not to air a speech made by Maulana Fazlur Rehman ahead of the dharna. “I’m not sure what Imran Khan means when he says Pakistan’s media is freer because these kind of things don’t happen here [in the UK].”
She also said that blacklisting Stephen Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists from entering Pakistan to participate in the Asma Jehanhir conference was evidence of blatant censorship.
“If you are trying to show that you have media freedom, that is not a very good way to go about it.”
Mr Almeida started his talk by giving credit to what he said are “the brave journalists out there who are bringing us information on Kashmir”.
About Pakistan, he painted a grim future. “Censorship is not going to get better in Pakistan. The two questions now are: how much worse will it get and how quickly that will happen.”
He unpacked a popular belief in Pakistan about retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s liberal approach to the media, and said that Musharraf’s incentive to allow private media to flourish came from the Indian government’s propaganda through its private channels during Kargil and the attack on the Indian parliament. “If you look at these episodes in India, you see the newly risen private media who was able to rally national sentiment in a way that Indian state channels would not have been able to do. On our side, they saw how India mobilised their population effectively. So they hoped to do the same. It was not altruism that led Musharraf to do this.”
Mr Hussain highlighted the less talked about issue of self-censorship within media organisations.
“Nobody talks about what owners do to direct censorship at journalists. It has nothing to do with state’s censorship of journalism. It has to do with who they [media owners] like, who funds them and who their favourites are. More than the state of Pakistan, Malik Riaz is the one who controls 9/10th of media coverage. His ability to influence coverage is huge.”