Prime Minister Imran Khan’s outburst against media in his address to the nation on Monday evening was a clear sign of his desperation. Having been unable to effectively respond to criticism of the government’s failures on various fronts, the prime minister chose to blame journalists to cover up his non-performance.
The skyrocketing inflation has led to a sense of frustration among the people and even leaders of the ruling party are expressing concerns about the situation. As the government faces censure from several quarters, ministers and special assistants have failed in their attempts at damage control and have been resorting to insults and name-calling, as always, to silent critical journalists.
With his apparent falling out with the establishment and the opposition’s plans to bring a no-confidence motion against him, Imran Khan seems to have become even more vindictive against his political opponents and critics. The manner in which media personality Mohsin Baig was arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in a raid (that was subsequently termed illegal by the court) at his house last month laid bare the extent to which Imran Khan will possibly go to punish his detractors. His earlier statement about becoming ‘more dangerous’ after being ousted from power gives further insight into his vengeful thought process.
PM’s intellectual dishonesty
In his address to the nation, Imran Khan defended the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) ordinance — rather dishonestly claiming that the law has been brought to control ‘obscene’ online content such as child pornography. In the same breath, he went on to complain that rumours about his marriage were circulated on media and the FIA took no action. He also referred to a news report published in Jang and said that it was falsely reported that Shaukat Khanum Hospital donations had gone to PTI. But this is not what the news report in question has claimed. It had in fact stated that a large number of foreign donors who gave money to the PTI had been under the impression that they were donating to the Shaukat Khanum Hospital. The reporter stands by the story and said that it was based on information submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) by the PTI itself. The PM’s speech, therefore, was devoid of facts, logic and reason — a botched attempt at covering up his government’s ineptitude.
Reacting to his statement about the PECA ordinance, Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah rightly reminded the prime minister that laws dealing with contempt and defamation already exist in Pakistan. The judge added that it appeared the PM was not duly briefed over the PECA ordinance.
Imran Khan’s reasoning is dishonest at best, because he used the grave issue of child pornography to defend his government’s brazen onslaught on freedom of expression. Laws against child pornography already exist in Pakistan and the crime is punishable with seven years imprisonment and a fine of Rs0.7 million. If the PM was serious about curbing child pornography, he would have ordered better implementation of the existing laws against the crime. That he used child pornography as a pretext to justify a draconian law that has been denounced by rights bodies in Pakistan and abroad reveals how non-serious he is about the sexual exploitation of children.
In a reference to rumours about his marriage, the prime minister also said that the private lives of individuals are unfairly targeted by those who spread ‘fake news’. However, ARY News that had to issue apology and pay fine in the UK umpteen times for airing false news and allegations is never condemned by the ruling party. In fact, its owner Salman Iqbal received a shoutout from the prime minister on Twitter when he gave a raise to some employees at the organisation. If Imran Khan wants to become a torchbearer of fair reporting, shouldn’t he first condemn a channel that has been caught lying by courts in the UK repeatedly? He wouldn’t mention ARY’s unfair reporting because the channel supports the ruling party.
Moreover, the PM should have also made an announcement about doing something to stop the rampant dissemination of false information by the ruling party’s own supporters and social media officials. On the day of the PM’s address earlier this week, pro-PTI accounts had been sharing a video of Russian President Vladimir Putin with fake subtitles, claiming that he had referred to Imran Khan as a ‘brave man’ who resisted the US pressure to visit Russia. In October last year, the state-run PTV had falsely reported that PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz’s son Junaid Safdar has been mentioned in the Pandora Leaks. There have been several instances of the ruling party’s supporters and even ministers engaging in misinformation. Never did they issue an apology after being corrected. The PM made no promise to set his own house in order.
Dogwhistle targeting critical journalists
Imran Khan also proceeded to single out journalist Najam Sethi and went on an outburst against him. The prime minister’s act of singling out and criticising a journalist during his address to the nation is a classic dogwhistle — which is not without consequences. When government officials publicly criticise a journalist or activist, a spate of attacks against the individual begins on social media. This is how the abusive online behaviour of the ruling party’s supporters is deliberately encouraged by the government. The prime minister made a case for censorship on the grounds of anti-government content on social media, but made no mention of the abuse that his party supporters engage in. If PM Khan’s intention was to free social media of toxicity and abuse, why then did he not promise to act against his own party officials who are part of smear campaigns? Truth be told, it is the PTI’s social media team that initiated the culture of abuse on social media. In 2020, women journalists’ signed a petition against abusive and threatening online campaigns that are frequently launched by supporters of the ruling party and amplified by government officials and PTI representatives. Instead of taking notice of the petition and putting an end to the harassment of women journalists, PTI officials chose to further attack the signatories.
Online campaigns against women journalists and activists include doctored photographs, suggestive captions, sexual slurs and even threats of murder and sexual violence. A year after the petition was heard by the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, the attacks against women journalists have only increased. The PM’s use of his office and state TV to attack journalists who are on the wrong side of his government reeks of fascist tendencies.
Striking double standards
Like many women journalists, I also approached the FIA against online death threats that I receive for my work. The complaint is pending before the FIA’s cyber crime department in Lahore since 2020 and no action was taken despite it being an open and shut case. Several women activists and journalists have reported online abuse to the FIA — to no avail. Federal Minister Murad Saeed’s FIA complaint against some remarks made during a talk show had however yielded immediate results and Mohsin Baig was arrested a few hours later. These double standards show that the FIA is being used as a tool by the government to push its critics into silence.
The promulgation of the PECA ordinance, which even the attorney general was unable to defend before the court, is not only an act of desperation but an unconstitutional move that will put Pakistan’s democracy in jeopardy. Opposition parties must strongly challenge the draconian ordinance inside and outside the parliament — or risk being complicit in the death of free speech in Pakistan.