Pakistan is gearing up for the general elections scheduled next week and there are rumors of a massive crackdown on the media.
On July 12, 2018, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) imposed a ban on national satellite television channels for airing live speeches of politicians as they conduct their election campaigns.
The ban was imposed to prevent satellite TV channels from displaying “derogatory” and “defamatory” content. The notification stated:
Satellite tv channels must ensure that no hateful, defamatory, malicious, and derogatory content/speech/press conference/paid political advertisement is aired, broadcast or televised in any manner, live or recorded, which may likely undermine the sanctity of judiciary, armed forces of Pakistan, other institutions, individuals, political parties and the electoral process.
The speeches of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif were censored from television and radio networks as he arrived in Pakistan to challenge a court verdict against him and his daughter, which found them guilty of corruption. The ban technically does not extend to online reporting, but election speeches have been censored online as well.
Although Sharif is not running for re-election, there are candidates in the running from his party, the PML-N, including his wife. Pakistan's military establishment is known to favor the opposing party, PTI.
Many journalists see the ban as an attack on freedom of expression. Journalist Tanzeela Mazhar tweeted:
No love loss for MNS but PEMRA s new order is simply ridiculous, we have been glorifying terrorists and been featuring victory signs from many convicted even in murder cases. Why this ethic fever for only MNS?
— Tanzeela Mazhar (@TenzilaMazhar) July 12, 2018
Note: MNS is Nawaz Sharif
Another journalist, Matiullah Jan, tweeted:
Someone is using rudderless PEMRA to tighten the noose on people's right to know and free speech. By the time elections are held, if and when they are held, the media will be voiceless and indeed shameless. https://t.co/3qpofLOwXJ
— Matiullah Jan (@Matiullahjan919) May 19, 2018
Some said the ban was justified, given that Sharif was convicted of corruption by the Accountability Court of Pakistan. Dr. M Siddique tweeted:
#pemra#media houses#judiciary #lawrers
Is there any law to stop showing CRIMNALS of PMLN convicted by SCOP n NAB asking for votes on almost all tv channels?
It means all the crimnals in JAILS also have the same luxury to seek sympathy.
We act like or we are a BANANA REPUBLIC!
— Dr M Siddique (@DrMSiddique) July 15, 2018
Note: NAB = National Accountability Bureau
Some even believed that the ban empowered the Sharif family, by rallying supporters against the ban. Youth Activist, Ameeza Zia posted to Twitter:
#sherayasheraya has made the caretaker government insane. PEMRA ordered channels not to give live coverage, roads are blocked, N league leadership being locked. This so called setup for Free and fair elections or to help Sharifs to turn out even stronger?
— Ameeza Zia (@AmeezaZ) July 13, 2018
Note: Sheraya sheraya means “The lion comes, the lion comes” (The electoral symbol of Nawaz Sharif is a lion)
Others have speculated that there is military involvement in the ban.
Pemra warns TV channels to refrain from ‘airing derogatory and malicious content’
“Channels are airing transmissions containing defamatory content targeting judiciary and armed forces,” observes notice–DawnNews
Tell them to stop political engineering in elections-2018–Awam
— Q. Ahmad (@QAhmad3) July 12, 2018
BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America coverages of Pakistan's general elections were banned from airing as a result. Krzysztof Iwanek, a Polish writer posted:
Pakistan bans news programs by BBC (Sairbeen), Deutsche Welle (DW Sawal) and Voice of America (View 260). Pemra claims they were operating without permission but there were other cases of censorship in Pakistan lately.
Stage set for July elections?https://t.co/50zRy6VBiM
— Krzysztof Iwanek (@Chris_Iwanek) May 24, 2018
Pakistani entrepreneur Sareer Ahmad Khan described it as the “worst kind of censorship”.
Is it true that #Pemra has banned TV channels from airing urdu programs of @URDUVOA @BBCUrdu @dwnews? If it is, this’s the worst kind of censorship right before elections. @gulmeenay
— Sareer Ahmad Khan (@SareerKhan93) May 19, 2018
Pakistani news channels also did not broadcast pre-recorded interviews of Sharif.
Other political parties say they have become victims of the ban as well. Pakistan People's Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said in a press conference:
The press is facing censorship, political activists are being detained, and this is not only a violation of human rights but also pre-poll rigging.
An amendment in Article 5 of the PEMRA ordinance has now become a point of the question. According to this article, the government does not have the right to impose directives related to content being broadcast. PEMRA is an independent federal institution, yet its activities may be politically motivated.
A history of censorship
Pakistan has a long history of censorship as news outlets have faced bans and other types of punishment, in what appears to be an effort to control public narrative. Journalists have not only faced hate speech but have been threatened, abducted and even assassinated. In this environment, are free and fair elections possible?