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News Analysis: In Pre-election Pakistan, a Military Crackdown Is the Real Issue

June 5, 2018

“This is no long about 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 them.

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 to other news outlets that challenge the military 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.”