Islamabad, Pakistan – Former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari grins like a Cheshire cat – looking a little worse for wear three weeks after he was arrested on corruption charges – as he begins an hour-long interview with journalist Hamid Mir.
A few minutes in, Mir, the country’s most-watched television news show host, asked Zardari about his belief that charges against him are politically motivated but transmission was interrupted by a commercial break, a bowl of frozen chicken meatballs exploding onto the screen.
The rest of the interview never aired.
Days later, three television news channels – Abbtak News, 24 News and Capital TV – saw their transmissions abruptly suspended, shortly after covering a press conference by opposition politician Maryam Nawaz.
Maryam, daughter of former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was controversially removed from power in 2017 and is serving a jail sentence for corruption, alleged in the press conference that she had evidence the judge who jailed her father had done so under pressure.
Less than a week later, a live interview with Maryam Nawaz on Hum News was “stopped forcefully” a few minutes into transmission, according to Nadeem Malik, the journalist who conducted it.
A sustained campaign
These were the latest incidents in what journalists in Pakistan described to Al Jazeera as a sustained campaign of censorship that has targeted news organisations across the board, banning coverage of opposition politicians – and dissent more generally – under the aegis of Prime Minister Imran Khan‘s government and the country’s powerful military.
“Not [the media regulator], not the information ministry, not the information minister, no one has to date told us why the Asif Zardari interview was taken off the air,” said Mir, who was informed days later that he would no longer be allowed to conduct his show live.
Transmission of Geo News, his employer, remains disrupted across the country.
Pakistan has had a chequered history with press censorship, military rulers and politicians alike imposing strict rules on what could be reported, often citing national security.
Pakistan’s information ministry denied any involvement in press censorship to Al Jazeera.
“We do not have any instrument, law or anything else by way of which we could apply pressure to anyone,” said ministry spokesperson Tahir Khushnood.
In response to Al Jazeera’s questions, Pakistan’s military spokesperson said the “[media regulator] undertakes such regulatory measures as per law”.
“ISPR [the military’s press wing] interacts with news media as official mouthpiece of military to share military’s perspective on various security issues,” said Major General Asif Ghafoor.
The media regulator, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), offered no comment to Al Jazeera.
Journalists say this time the censorship is worse than in the past because it is not imposed through formalised regulations.
“Earlier, we knew who was angry with us, who was pressuring us, and who was imposing censorship on us,” said Mir. “Now, they are so brave that we can’t tell who is doing it, no one is owning it and everything is happening.”
‘We need to shut this down’
Speaking at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace in late July, PM Khan, also the chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party which swept into power in a controversial 2018 general election, denied accusations of curbing press freedom.
“The Pakistani media, in my opinion, is even freer than the British media,” he said, advocating for greater internal media regulation. “The media in Pakistan is not just free, but sometimes out of control.”
Days later, media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) termed that claim “an obscenity” in an open letter to Khan, documenting a series of attacks on press freedom perpetrated during Khan’s tenure, including legal cases against journalists, suspension of news channels and fatal attacks on reporters.
“These brazen cases of censorship, which seriously threaten journalistic independence and pluralism, are characteristic of non-democratic regimes,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire in the letter.
RSF’s press freedom index for 2019 ranked Pakistan at 142, down from 139 last year.
Pakistani journalists told Al Jazeera the red lines on what they can and cannot report are now clear.
“The unspoken rule that certain people, personalities or parties are not to get any coverage is sacrosanct,” said a senior journalist working for a television news channel, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
He narrated how, last month, he was ordered to stop coverage of Maryam Nawaz addressing a political rally in the western city of Quetta.
“[They] said we need to shut this down, delete it and remove it [off the website and social media].”
The journalist documented further cases where he was either ordered to cease coverage or remove reports deemed critical of the state or the military from digital platforms.
“You can’t tweet something critical and survive. You can’t speak the truth about what’s happening or what happened – if you speak the truth, trust me, I think you’re going to vanish [off-air].”
Amber Shamsi, a television news show host, echoed that sentiment, saying that where censorship used to affect only certain kinds of dissent, its scope is now much broader.
“It has spread to mainstream politics, it’s not just people on the fringe. It’s mainstream politicians, obviously opposition,” she told Al Jazeera. “There is no consequence for it, so it has become worse.”
Shamsi said that since the interrupted interviews in early July, there was an unannounced ban on any media channels interviewing prominent opposition politicians such as Maryam Nawaz and Zardari and that it was “completely off-limits” to cover such politicians live on television.
“With Maryam Nawaz, you can no longer run clips on your shows, interviews are out of the question.”
Information ministry spokesperson Khushnood denied there was a ban on covering opposition politicians, despite a federal cabinet order in early July asking the media regulator to stop coverage of leaders accused of corruption.
Managers at news organisations said the punishment for non-compliance with the unwritten rules can be immediate and dire.
“If there is a programme that the establishment or the PTI government don’t like, they won’t call the journalist, they will call the managers, or they’ll just shut down the channel,” said one Karachi-based senior television journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“The mechanism used [for censorship] is to shut down the channel or stop the newspaper’s distribution. Then when we go to them to find out what is happening, that is when demands are made.”
Several journalists told Al Jazeera censorship requests were communicated to groups of editors, managers and media owners by the military’s press wing through WhatsApp messages.
“They have a one-window operation, usually a WhatsApp group,” said one Karachi-based senior television producer. “A tweet or a screenshot will be shared on that group [by a military officer]. And a question mark.”
Other journalists confirmed the existence of such WhatsApp groups.
“In [the 1990s], there were post-it notes, now there are WhatsApp requests,” said a journalist. “Please play this, this or this, or please push this, this or this, requested by ISPR [the military press wing].”
Asked what the penalties for non-compliance were, the journalist laughed. “Besides going off-air, magically? Besides that?”
Chilling effects of censorship
The crackdown on dissent by the government and military includes arrests and intimidation that go beyond the media, rights groups and political leaders say, with the media unable to cover those events critically.
Muhammad Ismail, a retired professor and development consultant, sits in his modest two-storey home in the suburbs of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, wondering when armed men would raid his house next.