When Prime Minister Imran Khan boasted last year that Pakistan had one of the “freest presses in the world,” journalists were quick to object, saying that intimidation of reporters across the country was intensifying. It has only gotten worse since.
Two years into Mr. Khan’s term, censorship is on the rise, journalists and activists say, leaving the country’s heavy-handed military and security forces unchecked as they intimidate the news media to a degree unseen since the country’s era of army juntas.
The security forces frequently pressure editors to fire or muzzle reporters, journalists say, while the government starves critical news outlets of advertising funds and refuses to settle previous bills worth millions of dollars.
The abduction of a prominent reporter by state security officers in late July, coupled with the disappearance of a rights activist in November, has heightened those concerns. In June, Pakistan’s Military Intelligence agency admitted that it had detained the activist and that he is awaiting trial in a secret court on undisclosed charges.
“Disappearances are a tool of terror, used not just to silence the victim but to fill the wider community with fear,” said Omar Waraich, the head of South Asia for Amnesty International.
“In Pakistan, the military’s intelligence apparatus has used disappearances with impunity,” Mr. Waraich said, adding: “Civilian politicians look on helplessly, affecting concern and promising to investigate. Unable to uphold the rule of law as Imran Khan vowed to do, their authority erodes.”
On July 21, the reporter, Mattiullah Jan, had just dropped off his wife at her job in an upscale neighborhood in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad when several men, some in plain clothes, others in counterterrorism police uniforms, dragged him from his car, bundled him into one of their vehicles and sped away.
Mr. Jan, 51, is a vocal critic of Mr. Khan’s governing party, the judiciary and the military, which critics accuse of working together to preserve their power and stamp out dissent.
Footage from a security camera clearly shows the police’s involvement in the abduction, working alongside men in civilian clothes that many believe are Pakistani intelligence officers. The footage culminated in a pressure campaign on social media and Mr. Jan was released 12 hours later. He released a vague statement saying he had been abducted by forces that are “against democracy.”
Multiple requests to the Pakistani government and military to comment for this article went unanswered. Pakistan’s security forces have not publicly commented on Mr. Jan’s abduction.
Under Pakistani law, state-directed abductions like Mr. Jan’s are lawful. The detentions often go unexplained, leaving the families of the victims wondering for months or even years whether their loved one was killed in something as commonplace as a hit-and-run accident or secretly detained by the security forces.
While Pakistan has long had a poor track record on press freedom, it has gotten notably worse under Mr. Khan’s administration, which has been widely seen as a high-water mark for military influence in the past decade. Pakistan slipped six spots since 2017 — the year before Mr. Khan took office — to 145th place out of 180 countries in the 2020 world press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
In the last five years, 11 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, seven of them since Mr. Khan was sworn in as prime minister two years ago. Anchors have frequently seen their newscasts cut off in the middle of broadcasting — a level of censorship not seen since the era of military dictatorships in Pakistan.
Instead of establishing an outright dictatorship, human rights groups say, Pakistan’s generals are effectively imposing their will through their allies in a government that they helped usher into office.
During the 2018 elections, the military was accused of meddling to ensure victory for Mr. Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and to virtually dismantle the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had tried to curb the military’s powers. The military has denied those accusations.
As those elections drew near, the military accused reporters of being anti-state, an allegation that was swiftly condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists. After a series of articles detailing the military’s political and electoral interference, the security forces disrupted the distribution of Dawn newspaper across the country.
Over the past year, the country’s remaining critical news outlets have been gutted by the combination of a devastated national economy and the sudden elimination of government advertising dollars. Media organizations have laid off dozens of journalists, and the combination of heavy pressure and job insecurity has led many reporters to avoid critical or controversial subjects.
Like many Pakistani reporters, Mr. Jan claims that he lost his job as a popular talk show host just months after the election because of his hard-hitting reporting. He now runs his own YouTube channel.
“This is the first time in the 31 years of my career where I’ve seen a structural takeover of the media industry,” said Talat Hussain, a former Geo TV news anchor who has been critical of the military and government.
Mr. Hussain said his company fired him under pressure from the military shortly after Mr. Khan’s election. He has remained unemployed, with newspapers and TV shows refusing to host his work.
“We have dealt with fairly tyrannical regimes that were elected and dealt in repression, but it was episodic,” Mr. Hussain said. “This time it is structural and complete and it’s hard to breathe.”
Eventually, the authorities came after Mr. Hussain’s former boss. In March, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the owner of the Jang Group, which owns Geo TV and The News newspaper, was detained over accusations of corruption, which Mr. Rehman has denied. Mr. Rehman has been held for over 100 days without charges, and several bail hearings have been postponed.
When the rights activist Idris Khattak, 56, disappeared late last year, there was no video footage to give his family the clarity that Mr. Jan’s family had.
In November, Mr. Khattak’s 21-year-old daughter, Talia Khattak, left Islamabad to go on a trip organized by her university. Her father told her he would call her to check in multiple times a day.
During their last call, Ms. Khattak said her father sounded nervous and there was a commotion in the background. He promised to call back in “two or three days” before hastily hanging up the phone, an unusual gap of time for him.
“Those two or three days have turned into eight months,” Ms. Khattak said in an interview.
As the coronavirus rippled through Pakistan in the months after his disappearance, the family’s panic deepened — Mr. Khattak’s health issues, including diabetes, have proved dangerous in those stricken by the virus.
Mr. Khattak’s disappearance was unusual. He retired about five years ago from his advocacy work with groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Mr. Khattak’s work focused on state-sponsored abductions. But he had since lived a quiet and seemingly uncontroversial life, his daughter said.
Finally, in June, a rare admission came from the Military Intelligence agency: Mr. Khattak was in its custody and would be tried in a secret military tribunal.
“When you take someone, when you abduct them, those people have families behind them. You’re ending all their lives,” Ms. Khattak said. “That they can just do this, with no repercussions, is unconscionable.”
The authorities have not allowed Mr. Khattak’s family members to speak with him. In the eight months he has been gone, they have received no word about his health or that he is getting his medication.
The abduction of her father has thrown Ms. Khattak into a murky political game as she tries to challenge the most secretive and repressive parts of the Pakistani state.
“Whenever there is a journalist or activist in Pakistan speaking up on sensitive issues, they disappear like this,” she said. “Papa didn’t do anything illegal — all Papa did was speak up.”