Upon superficial inspection, Pakistan’s market for expression is enjoying a golden age. This is a still a land of broadsheet newspapers, in both Urdu and English. Television channels only multiply. The country hardly lacks for people with a point of view, with regiments of columnists and teeming opinion-formers on social media.
This picture of a thriving, vibrant press is one that many in authority would love the world to believe. It fits with the narrative that Pakistan’s democracy is alive and healthy, and no longer plagued by military meddling. After all, at elections in July one lot of civilians, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by Imran Khan, turfed out another lot, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
All is not what it seems, however. For a start a fiscal crisis has walloped the media, which rely on advertising from government agencies and state-owned companies. Owners talk of the pain of having to fire journalists and cut operations. “We are all paring ourselves to the bone just to survive,” says one. “Every day the challenge is just to put out the paper.”
Worse, the army is using the crisis to reinforce an even more disturbing trend: its tendency to strong-arm journalists and bloggers, behind the scenes, to suppress all criticism, not just of the armed forces directly, but also of the policies they hold dear. The army, for example, clearly feels that it should be the sole judge of threats to national security. It decided that Nawaz Sharif, Mr Khan’s predecessor as prime minister, was one such. Two years ago at a national-security meeting, Mr Sharif and his government seem to have confronted the generals over their support for violent extremism. The army considers various militant groups useful, either because they extend Pakistan’s influence into Afghanistan (the Haqqani network) or because they discomfit India (Lashkar-e-Taiba). But supporting these outfits undermines Pakistan’s relations with America and India, among others—a situation Mr Sharif was keen to reverse.
The meeting was the beginning of the end for Mr Sharif, whose downfall and defeat in the subsequent election the army helped engineer. It also marked the start of the persecution of Dawn, Pakistan’s best-known newspaper, whose star columnist, Cyril Almeida, broke the story. Just before the election Dawn suddenly found itself denied distribution in several cities. Meanwhile, Mr Almeida may face treason charges for an interview with the former prime minister in which Mr Sharif made the shocking point that Pakistan should get along better with India.
Media types say they cannot report on the army’s constant interference in public life. Instead, they are under immense pressure to support Mr Khan and demonise Mr Sharif. Other out-of-bounds topics include the disappearance of advocates of self-rule in the province of Balochistan or in tribal areas in the north of the country. And though it is fine—indeed, expected—to rail against graft among politicians, don’t dare ask why the army is allotted so much land to dole out to officers (including the previous army chief, Raheel Sharif, who received 90 acres outside Lahore on retirement).
Bloggers who cross the line vanish into army custody, only to reappear chastened and docile. Publishers and producers say that orders about what to cover and how come in meetings with army officers, or warning calls from anonymous numbers. Threats of closure are not taken lightly. In March Geo, Pakistan’s biggest television station, found itself off the air in much of the country for a month—supposedly the spontaneous decision of hundreds of cable-providers. Private lawsuits are used to harass journalists deemed to be enemies of the state. In this environment, self-censorship flourishes. As one veteran journalist puts it, “I have never in my life experienced anything as tough as this.”
The question is, why now? One theory is that a younger generation of army officers, drawn from the lower middle classes and bloodied in the fight against home-grown militants who turned on the army, have a more Messianic impulse than older, whisky-swilling generals. After the extent of the army’s intervention in civilian affairs and foreign policy was revealed by Mr Sharif, this cohort’s reaction was not to retreat, embarrassed, from the political sphere. Rather it sought to co-opt Mr Khan and sculpt an administration more to its liking. If so, there are lessons for Mr Khan, whose government is struggling to find a sense of direction. Once upon a time the army helped Mr Sharif into power, too.