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Islamabad rejects criticism over media freedom

Updated July 12, 2019

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At a media freedom conference in London, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was questioned about the recent decision to take three television channels off air, the arrest of journalists and deepening concerns about censorship. — PID/File
At a media freedom conference in London, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was questioned about the recent decision to take three television channels off air, the arrest of journalists and deepening concerns about censorship. — PID/File

LONDON: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on Thursday there was “no question of gagging” journalists after being challenged about Pakistan’s record at a media freedom conference in London.

Mr Qureshi was questioned about the recent decision to take three television channels off air, the arrest of journalists and deepening concerns about censorship.

“Believe you me, there is no question of gagging or controlling media,” he told the conference co-hosted by Britain and Canada.

“That time has gone and with the new social media, the advent of social media, even if you want to gag you can gag nothing.”

Pakistan routinely ranks among the world’s most dangerous countries for media workers.

Global watchdog Reporters Without Borders this week warned that cutting off AbbTakk TV, 24 News, and Capital TV was “indicative of disturbing dictatorial tendencies”.

Read: Reporters Without Borders slams Pakistan curbs on TV broadcasters

“Three of them were taken off, I’m told for 6-8 hours, and now they are functioning again,” he said.

He said the channels had “issues” with the regulatory body, adding: “Those issues have been settled.”

Mr Qureshi was also asked about an interview with ex-president Asif Ali Zardari, which was also abruptly taken off air.

He said Mr Zardari, who is currently facing corruption charges, was not permitted to be interviewed in the way he was, “otherwise he can say what he wants to”.

He was also asked about Moshin Dawar, a parliamentarian arrested after being linked to a violent clash between protesters and security forces.

Mr Qureshi said Mr Dawar was able to make speeches in parliament but “that does not give him a licence to challenge the writ of the state and attack a military check-post and go into areas which are beyond the realm of a parliamentarian”.

A journalist, Gohar Wazir, was also arrested after interviewing Mr Dawar.

Besides, the foreign minister was heckled by a Canadian journalist at the conference.

During a panel discussion on free speech, Mr Qureshi was interrupted by journalist Ezra Levant of the Rebel media — a Canadian far-right political website that has a history of running conspiratorial content regarding Pakistan.

In a video clip of the verbal assault on the minister shared by journalist Munizae Jahangir on Twitter, Mr Levant said the organisers should be embarrassed to invite a “censorious thug” to talk about free speech.

The journalist alleged that his Twitter account had been suspended over complaints from the Pakistan government.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Twitter didn’t delete my whole account. But they deleted a tweet they said violated Pakistani law. Twitter said that to me in an email. I’m in Canada. Twitter is in America. But Pakistan censored us,” he tweeted.

In response, Mr Qureshi refuted the claims. “First of all you want your sentiments to be respected. Just look at the tone to the panel you have adopted. Is that the correct way? You have a right to ask questions,” he said.

However, the journalist persisted and accused the minister of adopting double standards on free speech.

“You have double standards what you call freedom; at times you are projecting certain agendas,” Mr Qureshi responded.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2019