On 11 November 2015, Pakistan’s most prominent English newspaper, Dawn, ran a front-page story on the military’s criticism of the government for its apparent lack of progress on a counter-terrorism plan. The story typified the Pakistani armed forces’ ability to shake up the political structure by throwing their weight around. On the last page, another story appeared, just as characteristic of how the state functions. It reported that a journalist, Mohammad Afzal Mughal, was detained by a law-enforcement agency from his home in Quetta, Balochistan, at 2.30 am. He was questioned by several officials, and then dropped off near his house.
Journalists in Pakistan have to navigate these two norms: they must report on and engage with the Pakistani military, but the state inevitably controls the message. Over the past few years, reporters across the country have been detained, threatened, harassed, and warned off doing their jobs by functionaries of the state, as well as militant groups. Dozens have been killed, including the senior Urdu-language journalist Zaman Mehsud, who was shot dead on 3 November this year, in an attack for which the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. The blame for violence against journalists is often levied at Pakistan’s militant groups and its intelligence agencies, although the military denies the latter allegations.
The English-language press in Pakistan was never free, but it is increasingly driven by self-censorship and self-preservation. Newsrooms have an unofficial list of taboo subjects that are off limits, due to the financial interests of media owners. These subjects are nonetheless well known: the military and its financial interests, enforced disappearances, human rights in Balochistan and the tribal areas, powerful real-estate developers, or major corporate advertisers. I’ve seen editors stand by reporters, often at great risk, on stories involving these subjects. But I’ve also seen editors go through the most innocuous of copy, removing references that might cause offence, dropping stories entirely, rewriting them to fit a certain slant, or just publishing press releases in lieu of reportage. I have seen original reporting replaced by conspiracy-heavy stories planted in English newspapers by government functionaries. These stories are often driven by geopolitical agendas, and usually accuse Indian intelligence of some nefarious plot.
Planted stories were once easy to spot because of how they diverged from a newspaper’s established stance. But reportage in Pakistan has also begun to resemble these inserts, pumped full of conjecture and hyper-nationalism. This shift has ramped up dramatically over the last year, in the wake of the grisly militant attack on the Army Public School, in Peshawar. Almost 150 students and staff were killed, and Pakistan’s government and military vowed revenge. The ensuing national security campaign, with the highly visible army chief Raheel Sharif at the helm, involved military operations and the reinstatement of the death penalty. But it also enforced an aggressive sense of jingoism in society, politics and the press, propelling the army’s popularity to cult status. General Sharif’s image is an almost-daily fixture on some front pages, and reportage is heavily skewed towards the military.
Saba Imtiaz is a journalist based in Pakistan. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and the forthcoming No Team of Angels.