IN keeping with their paranoia of an independent media, the authorities in Pakistan deported Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists when he arrived in the country this week. Mr Butler had reached Lahore to take part in the Asma Jahangir Conference. He was told that his name was on the ‘stop list’ of the interior ministry; he was sent to Doha, from where he was put on a flight to Washington. In a scene reminiscent of the era of hard-core dictatorships, the airport authorities were said to have ‘confiscated’ his travel documents. Typically, there has been no explanation about the incident from any government spokesperson here, fuelling speculation about the possible reasons for Mr Butler’s deportation. Many news reports referred to a CJP special report about Pakistan issued last year which had noted the worsening climate for media freedoms in the country.

The immediate domestic and international reaction to the door being so rudely shut on a foreign journalist, a would-be guest at an event to honour the memory of Asma Jahangir, one of Pakistan’s most vocal human rights activists, was measured. A tweet by one Pakistani human rights group expressed disappointment at the government’s decision which it said “must be re-evaluated”. Amnesty International also called for an immediate reversal of the decision. However, since then, the debate has moved on to tackling the broader question of how Pakistan can promote a soft image of itself if it continues to stick to a policy of abruptly refusing someone with a valid visa entry into the country, without assigning any reason. It also bears asking whether a ‘stop list’ is a valid mechanism, or yet another ad hoc measure like the FIA’s ‘blacklist’, which is meant to prevent people going out of the country. The gains made by the visit of foreign royalty, cricketers of a friendly country and sundry groups are all compromised by news such as this which spreads far and wide. Why give anyone any cause to suspect that the country has something to hide?

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2019

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