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Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani reporter who was attacked by 10 men in January.(Bloomberg)

Pakistan military tightens grip on media, public advocacy groups ahead of polls

For decades the military has either ruled outright or exerted influence over politics with a strong grip on domestic security in a country beset by religious and ethnic violence.

WT24 Desk

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui fled to France with his family after surviving an attempted armed abduction on a busy highway in Islamabad, Bloomberg reports.

About 10 men ambushed the award-winning reporter as he travelled during the capital’s morning rush hour, beating him and bundling him into a car. He only escaped by jumping out into oncoming traffic.

His assault in January highlights the challenges facing the media and public advocacy groups in the lead up to a July 25 election that could determine the future role of the military in Pakistan. For decades the military has either ruled outright or exerted influence over politics with a strong grip on domestic security in a country beset by religious and ethnic violence.

Ahead of an already tense election campaign, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted by an anti-corruption court and handed a 10-year jail sentence this month. He was disqualified from office last year on graft charges, leaving the field open for a new leader to take power. He has blamed the military for manipulating the court and elections against him, which they deny.

In a statement provided to the police, Siddiqui said he’d criticised the military in his articles. “I have been intimidated by security officials — civilian and military — in the past. In May 2017 I was also harassed and asked to come in to the Federal Investigation Agency HQ to explain my social media activity and criticism of the military,” his statement reads. Since 2015, he’s written stories on issues including alleged torture and killings at Pakistan’s military prisons.

Pakistan’s military didn’t respond to calls and messages requesting comment on Siddiqui’s investigation.

The army, which has ruled the nation for much of its 71-year independent history, dominates many aspects of life in the $305 billion economy and weighs in on economic policy. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has voiced concern over Pakistan’s “sky high” debt, calling for fiscal discipline and a broadening of the tax base in a country known for rampant avoidance. The military’s main business arm, the Fauji Foundation, has seen asset growth of 78% from 2011 to 2015, according to the company’s most recent financial statement, and has an annual turnover in excess of $1.5 billion.

Its dominance has raised concerns that Pakistan is backsliding democratically after Sharif presided over the nation’s first transfer of civilian power in 2013. And it will make US President Donald Trump’s aim of halting alleged Pakistani support for terror groups more difficult to achieve. Pakistan’s neighbours and the US allege the armed forces support insurgents that forward its objectives, which include annexing the disputed region of Kashmir from India and the installation of a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan.

Two weeks after the Jan. 10 attack on Siddiqui, Pakistan’s then Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said in a tweet the government would “fully investigate the matter and will provide necessary security to Mr Taha.” But with the police investigation unable to identify his attackers and the army denying any involvement, Siddiqui said he was left with no choice. He fled with his wife and five-year-old son. Speaking to Bloomberg in a restaurant in central Paris, he’s unsure when they will be able to return.

Calls and messages sent to Iqbal and the Islamabad police were not immediately answered.

“I will be killed or kidnapped at the airport and nobody will be able to talk about it because Pakistan is totally under their control and they’ve labelled me a traitor,” Siddiqui, 34, said, referring to the military. “This is what a soft coup looks like.”

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch say Siddiqui’s experience is consistent with an increasing pattern of violent intimidation, censorship and political manipulation in South Asia’s second-largest economy ahead of the election.

Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor refuted charges of interference and intimidation of the press in a June 4 press briefing. He then showed a screen shot of social-media users the army alleged were spreading anti-Pakistan messages — it included names and photographs of journalists and TV personalities.

‘Semi-authoritarian’

“Pakistan is now just a semi-authoritarian state, with a diverse but controlled media and multiple political parties, all operating within parameters set by an invisible military-intelligence authority,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US.“The two-tiered government — a civilian facade and a real military authority — will lead Pakistan to another period of instability and uncertainty.”

Political rivals have accused the military of backing the opposition party of former cricket star Imran Khan in a bid to create a civilian government it can control. Khan has repeatedly rejected the claims, as has the military.

In a press conference on July 10, military spokesman Ghafoor faced a series of questions about alleged meddling ahead of the elections. He said the army wasn’t backing Khan or behind corruption probes against Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, who is the co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The army was ensuring that elections are free, fair and transparent and it will accept the party the people vote into power, he said.

The army has long tussled with Sharif. The three-time prime minister was previously removed in a 1999 military coup. Over the years, Sharif clashed with Pakistan’s generals and last July was ousted by a Supreme Court-mandated investigation that included two military intelligence officers.

“With Sharif falling out of favour with the army over the years, however, it has needed a new politician to be as pliant as a young Sharif once was,” Shailesh Kumar, a senior Asia analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, said in a report on July 11. “The military has keyed in on Khan because he is also close to the Islamists and, perhaps more important, he has indicated a willingness to be subservient to the army.”

In February the Supreme Court barred Sharif from leading the then ruling party. His younger brother Shehbaz is now the party’s president and presumed prime ministerial candidate.

Before returning from London to Pakistan on Friday — where he was arrested — Sharif accused the military’s main spy agency of intimidating his party’s election candidates. Sharif said that Inter Services Intelligence officers told them to switch parties or run as independents. The military has denied interfering in the election, and didn’t respond to requests for comment on Sharif’s claim.

In a May interview with Pakistan’s leading English-language daily, Dawn, Sharif criticized his country’s handling of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks orchestrated by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. The army rejected his criticisms. Since then, its circulation has fallen as hawkers and sales agents say they were coerced by officials not to stock the paper, Dawn reported, without giving specifics on circulation figures.

Hameed Haroon, the newspaper’s owner, wrote in the Washington Post on July 12 of “an unprecedented assault by the Pakistani military on the freedom of the press, which is threatening our chances for free and fair elections.” The military has not responded to questions about this issue.

Off limits

Many within Pakistan won’t speak freely about the military.

One publicist showed Bloomberg messages they said were from a military intelligence officer instructing them which pundits should be interviewed and what news items to avoid. In May, a senior journalist said they were called into the army’s media department and told which topics were off limits.

In recent weeks journalists say their homes have been raided. Another has been attacked.

On June 6, Gul Bukhari, a British-Pakistani activist and military critic, was abducted from her car in a military cantonment in Lahore. She was returned home hours later after the British government raised the alarm.

There’s a constant fear of harassment for speaking out, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent military critic who left Pakistan in late 2016 after being targeted by a social media campaign she believes was directed by the army.

“People are concerned about their families and honestly at this point in my life I’m like, is it all worth it?” Siddiqa, a research associate at the SOAS University of London, said in an interview.

From Paris, Siddiqui said he doesn’t plan to rein in his criticism of the armed forces. “They’ve managed to malign the civilians, the parliament,” he said. “They’ve managed to coerce and push the judiciary on their own side, they’ve done the same with the media.”

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