June 27, 2023

IntelBrief: Pakistan’s Deepening Political Crisis Poses Threats to Press Freedom and Political Stability

AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9th has spurred a domestic political crisis that has exposed the fragility of political processes and press freedom in Pakistan and further endangered Khan’s political future.
  • Reports indicate that the military has intimidated members of Khan’s party (PTI), leading to mass resignations and creating significant obstacles for Khan to leverage his popularity into electoral victories now without strong individual candidates from his party.
  • Imran Khan’s name has reportedly been banned from the media following a directive by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) and a secret meeting hosted by the military.
  • This political crisis has further complicated Pakistan’s efforts to secure vital financial assistance as potential donors have expressed the importance of political stability in the country, diminishing Pakistan’s options to avert economic catastrophe.

The arrest of Pakistan's former prime minister, Imran Khan, on May 9th has not only deepened the country's political crisis, endangering his political future but also exposed the lack of safety surrounding journalistic institutions and political processes in Pakistan. The former cricket star, philanthropist, and populist politician was initially ousted from power in 2022 after a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Khan, who had initially benefited from the support of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment to help him gain power in 2018, lost its favor after poor economic performance and his over-involvement in the appointment of the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. These events set the stage for the 2022 no confidence vote, which is widely believed to have been supported by the military. Despite facing a setback, Khan and his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), remained resilient and openly critical of the military in the lead-up to the November 2023 elections—until his arrest, which triggered widespread protests and civil unrest across the nation. Soon thereafter, the Pakistani Supreme Court declared the arrest improper, leading to Khan's prompt release from custody.

Yet even as the protests and riots subside, supporters of Khan continue to face arrests, media columnists sympathetic to his cause experience intimidation, and key political allies have resigned, citing the threat of criminal charges and detention. Over 100 senior and midlevel party officials, including former chief ministers and cabinet ministers, have left PTI in recent weeks, aligning themselves with the military and renouncing Khan's conflict with the top brass. Many have joined a new party, Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party, led by Jahangir Tareen, a prominent Pakistani businessman. While Khan still retains popular support, analysts view his return to power as increasingly unlikely due to the erosion of his party and the military's efforts to suppress his influence. Party leaders are in hiding, their relatives are being harassed, and some have complained of their businesses being targeted. As the general elections approach, Khan faces significant obstacles in leveraging his popularity into electoral victories without these strong individual candidates from his party.

In recent weeks, news coverage of these events, including any mention of Khan, has been noticeably absent from Pakistani media. Toward the end of May, reports began to emerge regarding a military-led effort to censor any reference to Imran Khan in the media. According to initial reports from Reuters, The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a directive to television licensees on Wednesday, May 31st, emphasizing the need to ensure that “hate mongers, rioters, their facilitators, and perpetrators" are "completely screened out from media." This directive does not explicitly target the former Prime Minister by name. However, the implications are quite clear. Almost a month later, any mention of Khan has disappeared from media broadcasts, and his name has been scrubbed from news websites. Even pro-Khan news channels, who had regularly broadcasted Khan’s lampoons of the military, have been strangely silent regarding the former prime minister, who was still regularly posting on PTI’s YouTube channel. Prior to the PEMRA directive, the American news site The Intercept had also alleged that a “secret” meeting hosted by the military took place in Islamabad to discuss news coverage of the ongoing protests and riots with the owners of Pakistan’s major news organizations. Indeed, the BBC has reportedly received confirmation from sources within two separate Pakistani news channels that they are under orders not to mention Khan in any form.

This extensive media suppression is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan; in fact, this ban comes on the heels of reports regarding the kidnapping and torture of journalists such as Gohar Wazir, Irfan Kalhoro, Paryal Dayo, and Imran Riaz Khan. Wazir was abducted and tortured by unidentified assailants for over 30 hours in April. During this ordeal, he endured electric shocks and was coerced into recording a video where he promised to refrain from criticizing the military and pro-government militants. Wazir blamed state-backed militants, known as the "good Taliban," for his abduction and expressed concern about their impunity and the danger he faces as a result of his work as a journalist in Pakistan. Separately, journalists Irfan Kalhoro and Paryal Dayo were also reportedly abducted, tortured, and arrested in Pakistan's Sindh province. Most famously, however, Imran Riaz Khan, a nationally recognized news anchor, was arrested on May 12th at Sialkot Airport in Pakistan while preparing to travel to Oman. The police accused him of delivering provocative speeches and ordered a 30-day detention. Over a month later, he has still not been heard from, and is presumed missing, as the police claimed to have released him shortly after his arrest. These incidents are not isolated, More reports of missing Pakistani journalists have made their way to the surface, highlighting the rapid deterioration of media freedom in the country. This reflects a broadly deteriorating environment for journalists and shrinking media freedom across the South Asian subregion.

Amidst these developments, it becomes evident that the Pakistani military establishment remains a formidable political force and remains the key arbiter of political power in the country. The very institution that propelled the former cricket star to political power was also able to significantly threaten his political future, despite his widespread and longstanding popularity. The future of PTI is unclear, and it appears unlikely that Khan will be able to recover from this political upheaval. Meanwhile, the military's actions against PTI and journalists have drawn international scrutiny, a detrimental outcome given Pakistan's precarious economic situation. The country urgently needs loan rollovers and refinancing, particularly from China and the International Monetary Fund, to avoid default. However, Pakistan's failure to meet the IMF's conditions has hindered the revival of a loan program from the organization. This political crisis has further complicated Pakistan's efforts to secure vital assistance from China, which has also expressed the importance of political stability in the country. Consequently, Pakistan's options to avert economic collapse have significantly diminished.