As political tensions rise, Pakistan launches crackdown on media


ISLAMABAD — The power struggle between the Pakistani government and its ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, has escalated dramatically, with authorities targeting the pro-Khan press and officials blaming India, Pakistan’s arch-rival, to be among those supporting his comeback campaign.

A senior Khan official, arrested and jailed for making anti-military remarks on a TV talk show two weeks ago, was transferred to hospital on Wednesday after his lawyers said he had been tortured in custody . The popular cable channel where he spoke, ARY News, was forced off the air and two of its news anchors fled the country. Other journalists say they have been harassed and threatened.

The crackdown came at a controversial and uncertain time for the country and its leaders. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who took office in April, has made little progress in addressing the severe economic crisis that has sent consumer prices soaring. Khan, on the other hand, has gained momentum in local elections and continues to lead large, noisy rallies where he castigates the government.

The armed forces, which have pledged to stay out of political disputes, are caught in the crossfire. The current army chief – widely regarded as Pakistan’s most powerful person – is due to retire in three months, and the replacement process has sparked a whirlwind of rumors and criticism. The army’s image has also come under attack, particularly among Khan’s supporters on social media.

Some have made sarcastic comments online about the fatal crash of a military helicopter on August 1 while delivering humanitarian aid to a flood-ravaged region. The messages provoked a rare emotional response from military officials, who said they disgraced the victims and caused “anguish and distress” to their families.

Khan’s aide Shahbaz Gill’s comments on ARY, the most openly pro-Khan TV channel, struck a chord. In an indirect challenge to military discipline, he urged Pakistanis to follow their conscience rather than orders. “When you get an order, you have to know your values ​​and you have to be on the safe side,” he said. “You are not a madman or an animal.”

The government’s response was swift. The Home Office stripped ARY of its security clearance and the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority revoked its operating license, accusing the station of “false, hateful and seditious content”. Authorities then cut off its broadcast signal, silencing one of Pakistan’s most popular news channels. A senior government official, Planning Minister Ehsan Iqbal, said Khan was “conspiring to divide” the Pakistani military.

Gill was held for days, until a judge ordered that he be transferred to a hospital for medical reasons. Eventually he was carried on a stretcher after a dramatic three-hour standoff outside the prison gates between two police departments who both claimed jurisdiction. His lawyer, Salman Safdar, said he was tortured “in his private parts” while in police custody, a claim denied by Pakistan’s defense minister.

An ARY senior vice president was arrested at his home and charged with sedition, as were several other staff members. One of the two presenters who fled the country, Sabir Shakir, tweeted that he left “not under duress but to save the institution I love and my colleagues from harm”.

Pakistani and international media condemned the treatment of Gill and ARY. The Dawn newspaper, an influential English-language daily, warned that the crackdown “could set a dangerous precedent” and said that by overreacting the government had “given ammunition” to Khan and his party.

“Let’s not be fooled,” said Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders. Although the Sharif government should be held accountable, he said, “it is the military who operate behind the scenes to bring Pakistani journalists into line… The credibility of the rule of law is at stake.

Repression intensified as Khan’s political strength grew. Although he was once seen as close to the military establishment, analysts say the former cricket star is now seen by the armed forces as an unreliable populist, while Sharif and his government are seen as members more cooperative from the Pakistani establishment.

“The battle lines have been drawn and the press is stuck in between,” said veteran columnist and former liberal lawmaker Ayaz Amir. He was also intimidated for making outspoken public comments; in July he said he was pulled from his car and beaten by unknown assailants after giving a speech in Lahore.

“There is no consistent policy against the media, but sensitivities have grown,” Amir said. “The taboo now is Imran Khan. If you mention it or praise it, you are suspicious.

On Saturday, Sharif and Khan held contrasting events to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day. Sharif addressed the nation on television, wearing a stark green suit and tie, and urged Khan to join him in finding a path to economic recovery.

Khan led a raucous late-night rally in a crowded hockey stadium, where he touted a new path to ‘true freedom’ and denounced a ‘plot’ by the Sharif government to force him out of politics by accusing him of of illegally collecting funds from foreign sources, including India.

In a tweet on Sunday, Khan warned the nation of “an unprecedented campaign of repression by the imported government and state apparatus” against journalists and media outlets aligned with his party. “If we allow these terrorist tactics to succeed, we will return to the dark days of dictatorship,” he said.

Government Defense Minister Khawaja Asif denounced the “negative” social media campaign against the armed forces as a “joint project” and a “smear campaign” by Khan’s party and the Indian government against the Pakistani army.

Asif said 18 social media accounts supporting Khan had been found in India and the former prime minister was working to ‘safeguard and advance’ the interests of India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan and remains its main enemy.

Daniel C. Williams