Pakistani journalists hold protests to denounce censorship

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani journalists held nationwide protests Tuesday to denounce rampant censorship by the country’s powerful security services, massive layoffs due to budget cuts and months-long delays in payments of their wages.

The rallies, dubbed Day of Protests, were spearheaded by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, which said that journalists, who face the roughest phase in the country’s history, have decided to “fight the unprecedented censorship.”

Tuesday was only the “beginning of a protest movement,” said Afzal Butt, union president.

Journalists and press freedom advocates say that the Pakistani military is pressuring media outlets to quash critical coverage while the newly elected government is slashing its advertising budget, squeezing a key source of revenue for private newspapers and TV stations.

In the last few months, hundreds of journalists have been laid off as media houses came under financial constraints after government advertising was drastically reduced.

At the rallies Tuesday, journalist wore black bands and held banners demanding an end to censorship, economic woes for those working in the media and abuse of media laws to curb free expression.

Authorities control “even minute details of the media content these days, and dictate who will be the face of print and electronic media,” Butt said.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

Zafar Abbas, editor of the leading Dawn daily which has faced increasing pressures, said Pakistani journalists have seen severe restrictions in the past, including shutting down of newspapers, imprisonment of journalists and direct censorship.

“But what we are witnessing today in the form of pressures from the state institutions ... news blackouts and self-censorship, is far worse,” Abbas said.

Abbas, it was announced Tuesday, will receive the prestigious Committee to Protect Journalism’s 2019 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award “recognizing extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.”

“Zaffar Abbas is the embodiment of journalistic courage, which is why the board is so pleased to honor him with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award,” said Kathleen Carroll, chair of the CPJ board. “Every day he fights to deliver facts to Dawn’s readers in the face of pressure, obstacles, and blockades from the institutions in Pakistan that would much prefer to go about their business without scrutiny from the press or the public.”

Cyril Almeida, a prominent journalist associated with Dawn, was charged with treason after he published an interview with Nawaz Sharif in which the former prime minister accused the Pakistani military of aiding the militants who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Ashraf Khan, president of the union of journalists in the port city of Karachi, said authorities are using the country’s cybercrime law as a tool to crack down on social media freedoms.

Authorities are also asking social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to suspend accounts and take down pages for a variety of reasons, Khan said.

Abbas maintains these are among the worst of times for the media in the country.

“Unless journalists and owners of media outlets unite for a joint struggle, all the gains that were made during the last few decades will be lost,” he said.