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The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Monday released a summary of a fact-finding exercise it carried out to assess the extent and nature of alleged curbs on freedom of expression across Pakistan.

The exercise was undertaken in response to complaints by sections of print and broadcast media regarding interference with their freedom of expression over the last several months, the body said on its website.

In the wake of its findings, the body has asked the government to take steps to prevent the curbs on freedom of expression, including the disruption of newspapers and TV channels, saying: "Overall, continuing intimidation and the perceived need to self-censor has severely hampered objective journalism."

Disruption in Dawn's distribution

In an editorial last month, Dawn had stated that "since late 2016, though with renewed and greater intensity since May 2018, the paper has been under attack in a wide-ranging and seemingly coordinated manner that includes its distribution being stopped in several areas."

The HRCP said its fact-finding exercise had confirmed the same, writing: "Sales and distribution agents have corroborated the Dawn management’s complaint of unlawful interference with distribution of their newspaper across the country."

Editorial: Targeting Dawn

In interviews carried out by the commission independently, sales agents claimed the distribution of Dawn has been disrupted daily in "at least 20 targeted cities and towns – specifically in cantonment areas and army offices and schools", ever since it published an interview with ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in May, 2018.

"Hawkers report being subjected to continual harassment, threats and physical coercion [...] while attempting to deliver copies of Dawn to regular subscribers," the HRCP wrote.

"The disruption has been accompanied by the withdrawal or suspension of advertisements [...] since October 2016," the HRCP said.

Curbs on broadcast media

HRCP also reported alleged pressure on cable operations to take certain TV channels off the air or decrease their reach by moving them down the list of channels. It documented three instances in which cable operators in Punjab and Gilgit Baltistan were directed by persons claiming to be agency personnel to "remove" Geo TV from the air or change its placement.

"The general perception among smaller TV channels is that, if a media house as prominent as Geo TV can be targeted in the form of disruptions to transmission — with obvious implications for how this affects their business and compels them to engage in what one respondent termed ‘cost reduction exercises’ — then they, too, have little choice but to fall in line," the commission wrote.

'Press advice'

HRCP reported that journalists are reportedly informed of the red lines through "verbal press advice", which relates to what should not be published or broadcast.

According to the commission, the commonly embargoed subjects include: missing persons, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, Baloch separatists and rights activists such as Mama Qadeer, the Panama Papers trial and NAB references, the disqualification and arrest of Nawaz Sharif, references to any questionable decisions by the judiciary, allegations of judicial overreach and questions about the armed forces.

Two respondents told HRCP they were warned that they must use the words 'criminal' or 'convicted', instead of 'former Prime Minister', to refer to Nawaz Sharif. Another three said they were asked to avoid criticism of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

There has also been an increase in similar 'advice' being relayed to social media users, especially those critical of state politicies, the HRCP noted.

"Respondents testified to receiving advice from Inter-Services Public Relations and from civil agencies such as the FIA, which, they allege, has begun to call social media users for ‘hearings’ relating to their online activity, albeit with no supporting official orders," it said.

"Many print and broadcast journalists say that a common consequence of ‘disobeying’ instructions is vicious character assassinations through anonymous social media accounts and social networking platforms that go so far as to incite violence against mediapersons – and in the case of women, rape threats."

The HRCP called on the federal and provincial governments, their administrative branches and all other state institutions and services to:

  • Take due notice of the complaints it has presented

  • Take appropriate steps to prohibit and prevent unauthorised, illegal and unlawful interference with freedom of expression in the country

  • Protect the right of television channel and news publication owners to function with dignity and in peace.

  • There should be no interference in the sale and distribution of any newspaper, nor should any TV channels be deliberately displaced.

  • The system of issuing ‘press advice’ or press-advice-like ‘instructions’ on the part of state agencies must cease immediately.

  • All complaints of this nature should be redressed promptly.

  • Set up complete and effective information commissions in each province to implement the state’s obligations under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.

The HRCP said it will communicate the broad concerns expressed across the media to the state or intelligence agencies referred to in the correct manner, while complying with the respondents’ request for anonymity.