- Sep 26, 2018
- Reaction score
Reviled for silencing political opponents while in office, the former prime minister gets a muzzle of his own.
The government of Pakistan has taken a big step in its march toward autocracy by throwing a blanket media ban over former Prime Minister Imran Khan, its latest attempt to silence the most electable politician the country has seen in decades. It’s another move by the state aimed at crushing any chance Khan has of regaining the top office—using, ironically enough, the very weapons he wielded to browbeat political foes.
The ban seems to be the latest salvo in the state’s war on its most vocal and intransigent opponent. In recent weeks, members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have been arrested and jailed, while others quit. Khan himself could be facing arrest within weeks as the state builds its case against him, said Hassan Abbas, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University in Washington.
Human rights defenders and journalists have shown little sympathy for Khan, who has tried to portray himself as the anti-establishment answer to all of Pakistan’s problems. There are concerns about clumsy censorship—Dawn newspaper called the ban “a thinly disguised warning to the media to stay in line”—but Khan is widely reviled for his abuse of freedoms during a foreshortened premiership, which ended when Parliament voted him out of office in April 2022. He used similar bans against his own political enemies, and journalists were brutally targeted for critical reporting. Still living with the culture of fear and self-censorship that Khan exacerbated, most Pakistani journalists are unwilling to speak openly against the government or the all-powerful Army that backs it.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called out Khan’s government in its 2021 report, noting that efforts to control media and contain dissent included violent attacks on journalists such as Absar Alam, who was shot outside his house; Asad Ali Toor, who was bound, gagged, and beaten in his home; and talk show host Hamid Mir, who was taken off the air. All were sharp critics of Khan’s government.
“The authorities expanded their use of draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws to stifle dissent, and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government actions or policies. Authorities also cracked down on members and supporters of opposition political parties,” HRW said of Khan’s administration. (HRW last week lambasted the current government for proposing military tribunals for Khan’s supporters who were rounded up in mass arrests last month.)
This ban on media coverage of Khan and PTI was issued Wednesday by the state electronic media regulator, known as PEMRA. It forbids Khan and PTI figures from appearing on television and bans TV stations from broadcasting his speeches or press conferences. PTI’s communications director, Raoof Hassan, said that the ban will ensure that “nothing he (Khan) does will be reported in the media, across the board. They are trying to black out PTI totally.”
Khan now joins other public figures banned from media coverage. Manzoor Pashteen, who leads a civil rights organization called the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which campaigns against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances and military operations in predominantly Pashtun regions, is blackballed. Altaf Hussain, head of the MQM secular party he founded in 1984, is persona non grata. The ban on Khan was criticized by journalists and rights activists, who traced it to the Army, which put Khan in power in 2018, had him removed last year, and is now determined to keep him out, they said.
Pakistan’s military has been playing kingmaker and powerbroker since the country was founded in 1947, and it has ruled directly for about one-third of that time. While in the West, the concept of a “deep state” is often derided as conspiracy theory, in Pakistan, it’s skin deep and clearly visible: the Army, the Inter-Services Intelligence bureau, pro-military politicians, much of the media and intelligentsia, sometimes the judges. The generals have a hand in foreign policy, maintaining the foundational antagonistic relationship with India and supporting the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan. They’ve interfered in negotiations with multilateral financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. government in efforts to stanch the current economic crisis. Politicians cross the military at their own risk: The penalty is swift excommunication, as Khan is learning.
“This PEMRA ban is in line with the Pakistan military’s complete control and permeation over every aspect of Pakistan’s existence and its consistent attempts to engineer the political arena,” said human rights lawyer Imaan Mazari. She noted that Khan imposed a similar ban in 2020 against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “Politicians continue to be at the receiving end of the military establishment’s repression, and instead of trying to forge a consensus to push them back to the barracks, they are ever-ready to be used against one another.”
Pakistan’s shadow rulers use many means, from media blackouts to the courts, to silence any potential critics, she said. “These bans have not worked in the past, and they won’t work now. They show the desperation, in fact, with which the powers that be are acting to establish some sort of legitimacy and control, which now stands completely eroded,” she said.
The ban comes amid crippling political gridlock, largely caused by Khan and his supporters, and an economic crisis that has pushed Pakistan to the brink of bankruptcy and state failure. Inflation is officially running at 38 percent year-on-year, the worst in decades. Since he was ousted by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022, Khan has deployed populist tactics to try to force a general election he believes (probably rightly) that he’d win. He has called for the dissolution of provincial assemblies that PTI controlled and held enormous, hair-raising rallies while making unsubstantiated accusations against current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (the brother of Nawaz) and various Army leaders. He blamed a November assassination attempt on the military, without providing evidence. He also blamed Washington for orchestrating his parliamentary ouster.
In turn, the government has laid multiple charges against him, for a variety of alleged crimes such as corruption and terrorism; if any stick, he’ll be ineligible to stand for election. If there even is one. Few commentators are confident that the vote, tentatively meant for this fall, will even take place, so fearful are Sharif’s government and the Army that Khan would win. A Gallup poll conducted in February gave Khan a 61 percent popularity rating, making him the country’s most popular politician. Shehbaz Sharif came in fifth, at 32 percent. The cat-and-mouse fiasco reached its nadir on May 9 when Khan was arrested by paramilitary forces. His support base exploded. Rioters who attacked Army personnel and property are now threatened with trial in military tribunals, rather than in civilian courts, prompting the latest scolding from HRW.
In an interview with Reuters, Khan accused the Army of orchestrating the May 9 protests “to get me out of the way” and said he expected to end up before a military tribunal himself. The sword, as both Aeschylus and Matthew warned, is not just double-edged, but can be double-pointed.
“We are witnesses to a process of the dismantling of a party by the same forces that had once propped it up,” prominent commentator Zahid Hussain wrote in Dawn, in a clear reference to the Army. “Imran Khan grossly miscalculated the cost of taking on the powerful establishment. The party may not be over yet, but it will be hard for the former prime minister to regain lost political ground.”