Popular TV news channel ARY News has been taken off the air in most Pakistani cities and its news director, Ammad Yousaf, has been arrested. This brutal censorship bears the military high command’s stamp, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says, calling on the civilian authorities to restore the TV channel’s signal and drop all charges against its journalists.

“The same crude censorship and harassment of journalists critical of the government keeps on recurring even though political parties alternate in government,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Let’s not be fooled. Although the current government must be held responsible for the latest attacks against the media, it is the military that intervenes behind the scenes to bring Pakistan’s journalists to heel. These violations must stop at once. The rule of law’s credibility in Pakistan is at stake.”

Ammad Yousaf, who is also the ARY group’s senior vice-president, was arrested by plainclothes police at his home in the southern city of Karachi in the early hours of yesterday, the 10th August. Although no warrant was shown at the time of his arrest, he is being held under sections 120, 124-A, 131 and 153-A of Pakistan’s penal code, which inter alia punish “sedition,” “abetting mutiny” and “conspiracy.”

Witch-hunt

Warrants have also been issued for ARY News owner and CEO Salman Iqbal, producer Adeel Raja and anchors Khawar Ghuman and Arshad Sharif on similar charges. Sharif fled the country yesterday to avoid arrest.

Yousaf’s arrest came two days after ARY News became inaccessible in many Pakistani cities at the behest of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which oversees cable TV operators. The PEMRA said the ARY News signal was to be suspended “until further notice” for distributing “false, hateful and seditious” content based on “absolute disinformation (...) instigating rebellion within the armed forces.”

“Ammad Yousaf’s arrest and the ARY News TV channel’s suspension in many cities across Pakistan have broken the law in many ways,” said Iqbal Khattak, RSF’s representative in Pakistan. “This witch-hunt demonstrates the current government’s disregard for press freedom, which clearly contradicts the commitments made by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif earlier this year.”

In a tweet on 8 August, shortly after ARY News’ signal had suddenly been blocked, CEO Iqbal said his TV channel was being censored because “we reported a true story.” In a tweet the same day, Hina Parvez Butt, an official in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), acknowledged that the censorship order had come from the government. Her tweet was later deleted.

Respect for reporting conventions

The PEMRA, which polices broadcasting in Pakistan, said the suspension order was issued because of “highly hateful and seditious” comments by Shahbaz Gill, an influential member of the opposition and aide to former Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose coalition government was removed in April. In comments made during a ARY News report, Gill accused the current government of waging a campaign to turn the army against his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI),

ARY News tends to support this party and often carries news reports critical of the current government. Nonetheless, when broadcasting Gill’s comments, it distanced itself from them by making it clear that Gill was speaking in his capacity as a PTI representative. And, in so doing the TV channel complied fully with reporting conventions.

The TV channel is still completely inaccessible in the biggest cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. But in Rawalpindi, the northern city where the army is headquartered, it curiously continues to be available although now assigned a channel number that puts it near the bottom of the list of channels available to cable TV subscribers.

PEMRA proximity to army

The arbitrary censorship to which ARY News is currently subjected is similar in every respect to the censorship that has prevailed under the previous government. As RSF reported at the time, three TV news channels – AbbTakk TV, 24 News and Capital TV – were suddenly taken off the air at the PEMRA’s behest in July 2019 in reprisal for broadcasting a press conference by then opposition member Maryam Nawaz, the niece of the man who is now prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif.

The way such censorship keeps recurring although different political parties are in government tends to confirm the PEMRA’s proximity to the military and its all-powerful media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).

In practice, the Pakistani military play a dominant role in the machinery of civilian government in Islamabad and, as RSF noted in an analysis last month, it is now very common for journalists to be subjected to harassment and intimidation if they criticise the military high command.

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