KARACHI: The International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed concern over recent “coercive measures” to curtail press freedom in Pakistan.

In letters sent to the prime minister, the chief justice, the chief election commissioner , the Senate chairman and the leader of the opposition in Senate, the IPI said the press faced a number of threats in the build-up to the July 25 general election, e.g. physical intimidation, abduction and torture of dissenting journalists, and blocking of news channels.

The letter was released to the media on Monday.

“These actions deprive the public of a fundamental right to receive news and information and to participate in informed debate about matters of public interest, in particular the military’s role in civilian affairs,” IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi wrote in the letter.

Such a climate is inimical to free flow of information necessary to this election, says Vienna-based network

Copies of the letter were sent to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

Ms Trionfi recalled the brief abduction earlier this month of Gul Bukhari, a woman journalist from the Nawa-i-Waqt Group, and the beating up of Asad Kharal, an anchorperson with Bol TV.

“Numerous newspaper editors have been forced to drop dissenting columns from newspapers, leading some columnists to post their uncensored columns on social media platforms,” Ms Trionfi said.

Equally disturbing, she added, was the nationwide intimidation of newspaper distributors, apparently intended to disrupt the circulation of newspapers like Dawn, Jang and The News.

“Reports indicate that acts of intimidation occur daily in large metropolitan residential areas and in medium-sized towns, particularly in military cantonments and military-administrated residential societies housing large civilian populations,” the IPI director observed.

Similar tactics were being used against cable operators while news channels such as Dawn News and Geo were being regularly blocked from reaching audiences, Ms Trionfi said.

She said the IPI was concerned over indications that the military appeared to be increasing pressure on the media so as to “impose a narrative of its own choosing with relation to its involvement in civilian affairs”.

“I was troubled to see that, as part of this recent escalation, the military has publicly castigated independent media as a threat to national security, as a consequence of which dissenting journalists have been targeted on social media and threatened with bodily harm.

“Such a climate is inimical to both democracy and the free flow of information necessary to this election,” Ms Trionfi wrote.

“The IPI is worried that the continued persecution of the independent media is designed to convey a clear message: any criticism of the military’s involvement in civilian affairs will have dire consequences for the survival of an independent press in Pakistan.

“Unless rigorous measures are taken to halt further attempts to influence reporting in the media, and to ensure that newspapers are allowed to publish freely, and television channels are allowed to broadcast in Pakistan without any further harassment, doubts may be cast on the credibility of the upcoming elections.”

Ms Trionfi urged the prime minister, the chief justice and the chief election commissioner, as well as major political leaders, to do everything possible to ensure that the deteriorating environment for the independent press was reversed and that the press be protected from “attacks by state institutions”.

Set up in 1950, the International Press Institute is a Vienna-based network of editors, media executives and leading journalists striving for press freedom and the protection of journalists.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2018

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