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Pakistan’s elections represent the second civilian transfer of power in its seven decades of independence, nearly half of which have been under military rule. But rights groups and media-watchers have warned that the military’s influence is still strong, if indirect – particularly as the election approaches. “There are now ample grounds to doubt [the polls’] legitimacy – with alarming implications for Pakistan’s transition to an effective democracy,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement this month. That bid for control is especially evident in the media, journalists say. In the past year, several say they have been abducted or intimidated, and say publications have been pressured not to give favorable coverage to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was sentenced on corruption charges earlier this month. But the growth of online media, and social media in particular, has made the press more difficult to police. “It’s a war of narratives, and they are losing it,” says journalist Gul Bukhari, who was briefly abducted and released last month.
Journalist Gul Bukhari was on her way to a television talk show one night in early June when the channel’s van was suddenly stopped in a military zone in Lahore. Several men forced her into a vehicle and sped her away.
News of Ms. Bukhari’s abduction first emerged on social media, drawing widespread outrage. Within hours, Bukhari – known for her criticism of the military’s influence on Pakistan’s politics – had been released. She refused to name her abductors, fearing for her safety, and the military denied involvement. But several political analysts, fellow journalists, and activists accused the Army of her abduction: one case, they allege, in months of press intimidation and restrictions ahead of July 25 elections.
The polls represent the second civilian transition of power in a country that has spent about half its seven decades of independence under military rule. It has been 19 years since the last military coup – a fact some celebrate as a sign of progress. But critics say that the military’s influence remains intact, albeit through more indirect tactics, such as muzzling voices against its policies ahead of elections. In particular, they allege, the news media have become a casualty in a current campaign to retain and extend the Army’s control over areas like defense and foreign policy – especially as the growth of internet use, and social media, makes information more difficult to police.
Last week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) warned of “blatant, aggressive, and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections.”
“There are now ample grounds to doubt their legitimacy – with alarming implications for Pakistan's transition to an effective democracy,” the independent watchdog group said in a statement. Politicians from two major parties – former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – have also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the polls. Mr. Sharif and senior politicians in the PPP have accused intelligence officials of threatening their candidates to leave their parties or quit the race, in an effort to boost Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), chaired by former cricket star and anti-corruption candidate Imran Khan.
“A coup has been creeping up under the noses of national and international media and observers,” says Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator and political analyst.
Since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, its Army has played a central role in government, including three coups and many years of direct rule. Today, critics allege, it is more eager to maintain a cover of democracy – and journalists have increasingly borne the brunt of that campaign.
The country has often ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous for journalists, and is 139th out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Several journalists who have left in recent years have cited threats to their lives. The latest, Taha Siddiqui – formerly a correspondent for the Monitor – escaped an abduction attempt in Islamabad last January, and now resides in Paris with his family.
Many of the media restrictions involve coverage of Mr. Sharif. He was ousted from his third term as prime minister last year, when the Supreme Court disqualified him from holding office over unreported income. His government had long been dogged by corruption accusations, but he and his supporters have argued that he was targeted after pushing for civilians to have more control of Pakistan’s foreign affairs. He alleged that the military was behind his ouster – as it had been in 1999, when he was deposed in a coup.
Early this month, Sharif was sentenced to 10 years in jail on corruption charges, and his daughter – who is considered his political heir – received a seven-year sentence. Both were in London at the time of the verdict, where Sharif's wife is undergoing cancer treatment. When they returned to Pakistan in mid-July, his fans came to the streets, but the pair was arrested at the airport.
“We were extremely scared over how to cover Sharif’s return,” says a senior TV producer at the Jang Group, Pakistan’s largest media conglomerate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We were asked not to show thousands of his supporters.”
Earlier this year, cable operators forced Geo News, run by Jang, off-air in most of Pakistan. Conditions of the deal to return it to TV, according to a Reuters report in April, included not criticizing the “establishment,” a common euphemism for the military, or the judiciary, and not giving favorable coverage to Sharif. The Jang producer and a reporter at the group confirmed the terms of the deal.
The military “often contact the management, threatening them over a news story or even a tweet by a staff member,” says the reporter.
Dawn, the most popular English-language newspaper in Pakistan, also had its circulation disrupted after it published an interview with Sharif in which he indirectly criticized the military.
In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Dawn’s CEO Hameed Haroon decried “an unprecedented assault by the Pakistani military on the freedom of the press.”
“Certain forces aim to prevent the media from providing independent coverage of the country’s central political issue – specifically, a deepening power struggle between the military and the civil authorities,” he wrote.
Several writers have said their coverage of the so-called Pashtun Protection Movement in northwest Pakistan, which has accused the military of supporting Taliban in the area, has been censored.
'A war of narratives'
But the movement’s continued reliance on social media, to circumvent media censorship, may underscore a source of the military’s anxiety. Social media, Bukhari says, has played a major role in strengthening an alternative narrative to the one sanctioned in mainstream media. And the Army’s increasingly overt censorship, she says, is a result of facing new challenges to its control of public opinion.
“It’s a war of narratives, and they are losing it,” she says. “They expected Nawaz Sharif would quietly accept his disqualification and remain silent, but he rallied thousands of his supporters, both online and offline, to challenge the military’s narrative.”
Fewer than 1 in 5 Pakistanis use the internet, but that number is growing rapidly – increasing by 20 percent in 2016 alone. And more than 6 in 7 of those web users are active on social media, according to an analysis last year by the digital marketing groups Hootsuite and We Are Social.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy,” says the military is now aiming for more absolute control, though still under the guise of democracy. But it has hit a roadblock, she says.
“In PTI’s popularity, they see an opportunity to create a uniform, unchallenged nationalist narrative, but social media is turning their planning sour.”
Military intelligence agencies have not mastered the art of controlling online media, Mr. Khattak says. But while the Army has tried to intimidate individual journalists and bloggers, he says, there are simply too many online readers.
“It’s been a surprising factor to them.”
Umer Ali is a Pakistani journalist reporting on human rights, conflict, and censorship. He can be reached on Twitter at @Iamumer1