ISLAMABAD—Asad Ali Toor, a outspoken journalist and vlogger said Pakistan was once fertile breeding ground for reporters and activists is now graveyard of murdered careers.
At around 11 PM on May 25—just two weeks after the festival of Eid Al-Fitr—Toor opened the door of his Islamabad apartment and found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. What followed, within moments, was a beating so severe that it left him flapping on the ground like a fish.
“By the time they were done with me,” he tells The Nation, “I was so badly wounded that there were drops of blood falling from my fingertips. That was the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Toor says his attackers identified themselves as belonging to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—Pakistan’s military intelligence agency—and forced him to chant slogans in support of the army, as well as others denouncing Israel, Afghanistan, and India.
“I couldn’t understand how they expected me to speak with a rag in my mouth. All I could do was make silly sounds.”
In spite of the trauma—or perhaps because of it—he is keen to draw attention to the heroics of his snow-white cockatoo Barfi, who apparently had her wing broken while trying to defend him. The relief, however, is distinctly short-lived, and he quickly returns to the topic of press freedom. “To be very honest, I don’t see a ray of hope for the future. The establishment has become so powerful that there is nothing a few voices can do to disturb them.”
The media landscape in Pakistan is notoriously complicated. Though there are more than 40 news channels on television and as many as 700 newspapers in print, the space for dissent is vanishingly small. The country ranks 145 out of 180 on the Global Press Freedom Index, and its prime minister, Imran Khan has just been named a “predator” by Reporters Without Borders. It is a climate that has become so unsafe for journalists that some have fled the country in terror.
One of those to have left is Gul Bukhari—a liberal commentator and social activist who used to write a regular column in the English-language press. Speaking to The Nation from London, where she has lived in exile since 2019, she gives a detailed account of her abduction in Lahore and the circumstances that forced her to leave the country. It is the first time she has spoken about the incident in public, and her thoughts are punctuated by chasms of silence.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says, looking away. “I thought I was going to be raped and killed.”
On the night of June 5, 2018, while she was traveling to the studios of Waqt News, her car was intercepted by a cavalcade of trucks and forced off the road onto the pavement. When she came out to demand an explanation, she found herself surrounded by a dozen armed men, who violently bundled her into a car.
Bukhari believes these men were from ISI and had been sent to punish her for her views on the military. “There is only one organization in Pakistan that has the power to abduct people in this way,” she says.
To stop her from screaming, one of her assailants started choking her and did not let go until she signaled her compliance. Her dupatta (shawl) was then used to tie up her hands and her eyes were covered with a dirty rag. “They drove me around for an hour to disorient me and then took me to a safe house for an interrogation.”
At the time of her kidnapping, Bukhari had emerged as one of the army’s harshest critics. She had repeatedly condemned the armed forces for their incursion into politics and for committing human rights abuses against the Pashtuns, topics she claims made up the bulk of her interrogation.
Her high profile probably saved her life. News of her abduction went viral within minutes, and the pressure on her assailants became so strong that they were forced to take her back to her house.
“My son was in his room. His friends had told him what had happened. He was very brave in that moment…but the effects of the trauma came out later.”
For Taha Siddiqui, who survived an abduction attempt in January 2018, the trauma is something that never goes away. “I had to go and see a psychologist because of all the flashbacks.”
As the journalist responsible for investigating the army’s extrajudicial killings in covert prisons, Siddiqui has often been accused of maligning the establishment. Like Bukhari, he too is living in exile—in his case in France—and the atmosphere he conjures when describing his life in Paris is one of suffocation, paranoia, and a perpetual sense of jeopardy.
In December 2018, while visiting Washington, D.C., for a conference, he claims to have been tipped off—under the Duty to Warn directive—by US Intelligence of a plot to kill him. “From what I understood, they were spying in Islamabad when they came across this information,” he says. “They told me, ‘Don’t go to Pakistan because they’re gonna kill you for sure there; don’t go to a Pakistan-friendly country because our assessment is that they might target you and be safe in Paris because anything can happen anywhere.’” In his hometown of Karachi, his parents still receive threatening phone calls and interrogatory visits.
The attacks on Siddiqui and Bukhari—spaced just six months apart—took place in a year of profound upheaval for the media. In the run-up to the general election of 2018, Pakistan’s biggest television network, Geo TV, was taken off the air on the orders of the military, allegedly because of the way it was covering the news. There then followed a brief period of negotiations that allowed Geo to return, but not before its management made a number of concessions. According to a source familiar with the terms of the settlement, the military and judiciary were not to be criticized; there was to be no reference to vote rigging or pre-poll manipulation; and all reporting on former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to follow the narrative that he was guilty of corruption.
According to Asad Ali Toor, the capitulation of Geo management became a watershed moment. “The establishment wasn’t setting the boundaries for a single outlet; they were setting the boundaries for the entire media. The only journalists who were able to survive were the ones who agreed to follow these red lines.”
Certainly, it is difficult to argue with Toor when one considers the fate of those who rejected these commandments. In the past three years, the three big beasts of Pakistani journalism—Najam Sethi, Hamid Mir, and Talat Hussain—have been taken off air and banned from working.
Talat Hussain was the first to go; he was removed from his job shortly after Imran Khan came to power, apparently because of pressure from the military establishment. “We have dealt with fairly tyrannical regimes that were elected and dealt in repression, but it was episodic,” he told The New York Times last year. “This time it is structural and complete, and it’s hard to breathe.”
In the case of Najam Sethi, exclusion was inevitable. Known for his wit and political wisdom and for the anonymous sources he likes to call his “little birds,” he was responsible for pioneering a pedagogic form of talk show in which he would tutor his cohost—and by extension the audience—on how to interpret the news of the day. “My problem was that I was being asked the question of why things were happening. Now my view was that they were happening because of the intervention of the military…. I couldn’t analyze anything without making reference to the powers that be.”
The choice for Sethi, then, was simple: fall in line or fall out with the establishment. He chose the latter, and had his show suspended by the management of his channel.
Hamid Mir, who still carries two bullets inside his body from a failed assassination attempt in 2014, managed to stay in his job for a little while longer, despite walking out on the broadcast of the 2018 general election. “In a free and fair election, Imran Khan would never have become prime minister,” he tells the Nation. “The whole thing was rigged, and I wasn’t allowed to cover it.”
Since May 28, when he gave a speech condemning the attack on Asad Toor and threatened to expose the secrets of the military, he hasn’t been able to cover anything at all. “I am living proof of censorship in Pakistan,” he says.
To counter the censorship being imposed by the military, several prominent journalists have started broadcasting on YouTube—but this avenue is also on the verge of being closed. The government is proposing a measure to make the freedom to publish on social media contingent on obtaining a license from the state. If passed, the Pakistan Media Regularity Authority ordinance would be the latest in a long series that have been used to put limits on freedom of expression. Raza Rumi, who directs the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, attributes this suppression to the nature of the Pakistani state. “You have to remember that this is a postcolonial state with the same attitude towards the press as the British Raj, which saw it as some kind of threat to security.”
In fact, by making freedom of the press conditional on maintaining “the glory of Islam” and “the integrity, security, or defense” of the country, even the Pakistani Constitution restricts the media’s ability to report. In the opinion of journalist and civil rights campaigner Munizae Jahangir, these constitutional restrictions make it difficult for the media to speak truth to power. “You cannot critique the armed forces when, unfortunately, they have been at the heart of politics in Pakistan and the main decision-makers for most of our lives.”
For Najam Sethi, who has just returned to the airwaves after a protracted absence, the situation in Pakistan is part of a worldwide phenomenon. “Now that the media via technology is open to globalization and to completely new populist impulses, the urgent need of establishments everywhere to hide whatever they are doing has never been so ubiquitous. Whether it’s America or Pakistan, or anywhere else, laws are changing to manage the media in democracies and to control the media in autocracies.”
The implications for Pakistan, however, are more serious than for most others. That is the view of reporter Azaz Syed, who thinks that future generations will suffer the consequences of this crackdown. “When there’s an entire era in which you haven’t told the truth—it’s like you’ve distorted history,” he tells The Nation. “If you murder critical thinking in a society, it means you end up with a country that’s only raising soldiers, people who only know how to follow instructions.”