HOW IS THE FOREIGN PRESS MUZZLED AND CONTROLLED IN PAKISTAN?
In this latest piece, Pakistan-based journalists working with international media connect with safenewrooms.org to highlight the freedoms and pressures they face when working in Pakistan. Given the sensitivity of the information they have shared with the safenewsrooms.org platform, we have not revealed their identities. However, we can confirm that the following article was prepared after interviewing journalists who are currently in Pakistan or have worked in the country recently for services like AFP, Reuters, and international news channels like the BBC, CNN, France24, etc. and international papers like the New York Times, the Guardian, and other American and British newspapers.
FREEDOM OF ACCESS IN PAKISTAN?
Pakistani authorities block access to many areas in the country for the foreign press via the practice of No Objection Certifications (NOCs). Many at times, the authorities do not issue the NOCs timely and given the nature of news cycle, the story becomes outdated and does not get the coverage it should. Many at times, such NOCs are not even issued at all. There are many regions that fall under such category of requiring NOCs. They include Pakistani administered Kashmir, Gilgit Baltistan, Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (also known as FATA). Sometimes even areas within the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab province require NOCs. One international journalist working with a foreign news outlet protested how even those holding Pakistani passports are being restricted access within the country, even though the law allows them freedom of movement. “They even ask Pakistani journalists working for our organization to get NOCs to visit certain places. The lack of access means we do not report much from these regions, leaving a blackhole in reporting from Pakistan,” explains the international media journalist. To circumvent the problem of NOCs, many international news organizations have local stringers. However, local stringers fear for their safety and often do not want their byline and use pseudonyms to report from Pakistani conflict zones.
“Some of our local reporters have asked us not to publish information and reports they have given us because the authorities know they are connected to our organizations. Others fear going into the field to gather information on sensitive events, for example military action against people in FATA,” says a reporter, working for international media.
Many of the journalists safenewsrooms.org spoke to complained about how their requests for access have even gone unanswered especially if they had done a critical story on the military in the recent past. Also, they do not get invited to important pressers, like the ones done by the ISPR, resulting in difficulties at their own workplace as such reporters feel that their management then looks at them as a liability. “I recently did a story on the Kashmir conflict for my news organization. I was given access by the military but they were not happy with some parts of it and they asked me to alter it, once it was published. I refused and since then the military representatives who deal with the media do not answer my phone calls and I do not get invited to their events,” says a journalist who works with an international news organization.
The journalists working for foreign press say the military has been a major issue in blocking access to them to conflict zones while take those it sees more favorable along. “I was told I should be a Pakistani first, and a reporter second. I did not understand that because I was meeting an ISPR official in a reporter’s capacity and it was not a social call. I told him this was not possible and from then on wards I get no invites,” says one journalist affiliated with foreign press. The journalist feels post this interaction, the ISPR stopped having even a working relationship which affected the ability to fully report for the newspaper.
TABOO TOPICS FOR INTERNATIONAL MEDIA?
A number of international media journalists that safenewsrooms.org spoke to say there is an environment of fear so reporting freely in Pakistan can be troublesome, even if they enjoy the backings of large powerful international news organizations. Some of the topics that they tread carefully around include the issue of blasphemy and religion. Some even self-censor when it comes to such topics. “I did a story that involved an Ahmadi person, and I did not give a lot of information he had shared, due to safety concerns for both of us,” says a reporter working for an international news organization.
Another topic that can get even international reporters in trouble is Balochistan. “On more than one occasion, my editor discouraged me from covering events there because simply seeing the story was filed from Balochistan would raise suspicions,” adds the same reporter.
The reporters also complain about not being able to report freely when it comes to the Pakistan military. A journalist that recently moved to Pakistan to report from the country says it’s been eye-opening to learn the increasing range of topics that fit in the category of military. “Critically covering their businesses, their allies, their political enemies, Afghanistan, India, CPEC, civil rights for Pashtuns etc means potentially offending the military establishment. There’s no written rule, which makes the matter even murkier,” explains this reporter.
A CULTURE OF DELAYS, HARASSMENT, DENIALS…
In other conversations with international journalists it was found how many of the reporters and bureaus face extreme visa delays for their renewals or if someone else wants to visit from headquarters, regular visits from the intelligence agencies at their homes and bureaus, and in some cases even inappropriate conversations and outright harassment. One female journalist working for an international television channel recalls how she was asked about her relationships and questioned about her activities around that.
Over many years the Pakistani government has also expelled many journalists, including the famous case of Declan Walsh, who was asked to leave the country in a matter of days in 2013. Similarly, other journalist who have left Pakistan have almost always been told their visas will no longer be renewed as they are no more welcome and they have had to pack their bags.
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