Just a month and a half away from national elections, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment has mounted a fearsome campaign against its critics in the news media, on social networks, and in mainstream political movements.
It is all adding up: journalists abducted or threatened, major news outlets blocked, sympathetic views toward the civilian governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, censored or punished.
Interviews with journalists and political analysts in recent days have been dominated by concerns that a military campaign of intimidation and crackdown on dissent is intensifying ahead of the vote — and nearly unanimously, none dared discuss it on the record.
The latest alarm came with the abduction of a newspaper columnist and prominent critic of the military, Gul Bukhari, by armed men late Tuesday in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. Ms. Bukhari was being driven to appear on a late-night talk show on Waqt News when the car was stopped in a military cantonment in the city. She was hauled off and the driver was beaten, the station said.
Ms. Bukhari has frequently crossed two of the military’s recent red lines on social media — criticizing the army for its pressure on the PML-N, as the governing party is known, and expressing support for a growing Pashtun human rights movement known as P.T.M.
Just a day before, the army’s chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, called a news conference to declare that social media users who rebuked the military were engaged in “anti-state activities” and were being monitored by the army’s spy agency.
He then posted pictures of some of the country’s most prominent journalists, suggesting they were part of a social media conspiracy against the military, in a move condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists as “tantamount to putting a giant target on their backs.”
Ms. Bukhari’s supporters see her abduction and General Ghafoor’s threats as related, and some directly accused the military of being responsible. She was dropped off near her home roughly four hours after her abduction, and was unwilling to talk about who was behind it, asking for privacy in a statement released on Twitter.
Military officials would not comment on the record about Ms. Bukhari’s abduction or about General Ghafoor’s news conference.
The two events have further chilled the political environment in Pakistan’s already beleaguered democracy.
“There is a palpable climate of fear about what can be said about whom, how, and where — not just on mainstream media but also on social media,” said Adil Najam, the dean of Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University. “This is not healthy for the state of democracy in general, but especially not right before an election.”
Even when journalists do talk about the military, it is usually in code, referring to the “authorities” or the “powers that be” rather than directly naming the security establishment that has so asserted its dominance over civilian institutions.
One of the few Pakistani journalists who has repeatedly and directly condemned the military for its crackdown, Taha Siddiqui, can do so because he has fled the country. He narrowly escaped an abduction attempt in February.
On Wednesday, Mr. Siddiqui said Ms. Bukhari’s abduction was another frightening statement.
“They want to send a message to the rest of Pakistanis and the world that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, to dissenters,” he said in an email interview.
“This is no longer just about intimidating me, Gul or other such dissenters and military critics. This is about sending a message to everyone: Stop speaking against the Pakistan Army,” he added.
In recent weeks, Pakistan’s biggest English-language newspaper, Dawn, was accused of ethical violations by the country’s press regulatory panel and soon after found its circulation blocked in vast portions of southern Pakistan. The paper’s offense was to publish an interview with the ousted former prime minister and leader of PML-N, Nawaz Sharif, in which he criticized the military.
In interviews in Lahore, newspaper sellers and shopkeepers said that military and intelligence officers had instructed them, sometimes politely but other times with force, to stop stocking Dawn.
The actions are similar to those used against Pakistan’s biggest cable news network, Geo TV, which cable providers in military cantonment areas started blocking in March. In the following weeks, more than three-quarters of the network’s cable providers around the country dropped or blocked it.
The pattern there, too, is familiar: Military officers and their supporters criticized Geo as being sympathetic to PML-N, citing its coverage of the judiciary’s ouster of Mr. Sharif on corruption charges last summer. The coverage was attacked for suggesting that the court had been doing the military’s bidding.
The punishing pressure now applied to Dawn and other news outlets is more insidious than the outright censorship of times past, says Dawn’s editor, Zaffar Abbas.
“This is somehow far more suffocating than martial law,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “This time, the facade of democracy is there. With the threat of economic retaliation, we see Pakistani media suffer the worst kind of censorship: self-censorship.”
He was alluding to how the country’s dozens of media channels and newspapers have been frightened into falling in line on what the military defines as “no-go” issues, such as giving Mr. Sharif and his party coverage, or reporting on the Pashtun rights movement.
This is high political season in Pakistan. The military’s pressure on civilian institutions comes just as the country’s political parties are exerting maximal effort to win seats in Parliament.
In any normal political environment, PML-N would be going into the campaigning as a favorite. It is still the dominant party in the Pakistani heartland, Punjab, and even after the corruption accusations at the heart of Mr. Sharif’s ouster, it has devoted followers.
But now the country is awaiting a court ruling that could see Mr. Sharif imprisoned. That decision is expected in the weeks before the elections, scheduled for July 25.
And over everything is the question: Can an election in which the leading party and journalists who cover it are perceived to be under threat — from a military establishment that has overthrown governments several times — really be seen as free?
“They want to control the narrative,” said Mr. Abbas, the Dawn editor, without saying who “they” were. “And to a large extent, they are succeeding.”
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