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Why do some Pakistani journalists say they're being silenced?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an update now from one of the front lines in the worldwide fight over a free press. One of many countries where the rules are changing is Pakistan, where journalists say a loud and vibrant debate is growing less so.

AMBER RAHIM SHAMSI: My name is Amber Rahim Shamsi, and I am an unemployed journalist.

INSKEEP: Amber Shamsi worked until last year as a broadcaster for an Urdu-language channel called Samaa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAMSI: (Speaking Urdu).

INSKEEP: She's off the air now and told us she believes it is partly because of an interview with a government minister. It was part of a program in 2020 on a coronavirus operations center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAMSI: (Speaking Urdu).

INSKEEP: In the interview, she asked about unrelated issues, like a shortage of gasoline...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAMSI: (Speaking Urdu).

INSKEEP: ...And also an investigation of high sugar prices, things the government was less eager to discuss.

SHAMSI: When I was on my way back from that interview, I started getting phone calls from a colonel.

INSKEEP: Somebody in the army.

SHAMSI: Yes.

INSKEEP: OK.

SHAMSI: Who is responsible for the media coordination. He asked me why we had asked these political questions, even though he had helped us with the organization of the interview. And I said, well, there's a big news story. He's a politician. We asked him for his permission. He was all right with it.

INSKEEP: Now, this kind of conversation happens in the United States. PR people push, nudge, try to keep interviews you hear on their preferred topic. But in Pakistan, she says, the army officer went further.

SHAMSI: I tried to resist, but he went to my - the owners of the channel that I was working for and asked for that interview to be taken off air.

INSKEEP: The interview is posted online today, and her TV channel denies that any of this ever happened. But Shamsi says that complaint was one of many forms of government pressure.

SHAMSI: That was actually sort of - I think that sort of opened the floodgates a little because there was an intense trolling campaign against me.

INSKEEP: In a separate case, someone filed a criminal complaint against her producer. They claimed he was using social media to spread, quote, "negative propaganda against the God-given Republic of Pakistan, its institutions and its army." The charges were dropped, but both Shamsi and her producer were on their way to leaving their network as their show was canceled.

SHAMSI: We were already sort of under pressure because we were very critical of the government and a little bit of the military as well.

INSKEEP: You were harassed out of a job, it sounds like.

SHAMSI: Essentially, essentially. The reason that we were given was that, you know, the ratings weren't good.

INSKEEP: We wrote Shamsi's boss, who says her program was, in fact, discontinued for, quote, "abysmal ratings," not military pressure. But the executive also agrees that freedom of the press is a genuine concern. Shamsi maintains that a period of relative openness in one of the world's most populous countries is ending.

You said at the beginning that you're an unemployed journalist. Are you an unemployable journalist?

SHAMSI: I suspect, after this interview, even more so.

INSKEEP: Pakistan has many newspapers, TV channels and websites in many languages, but journalists at many outlets have said for decades they must do their jobs carefully and lately even more so.

ABSAR ALAM: Pakistani media has lost everything. We have lost our independence. We have lost our freedom.

INSKEEP: Absar Alam is a former newspaper editor and TV commentator who says he can't get on TV anymore. He says he turned to social media and questioned corruption in the military, after which an unidentified person attacked him in a park.

ALAM: So I was walking on this track, this way.

INSKEEP: Past the little playground set.

ALAM: Yes. There were kids playing here. He shot at me here, and then he ran away towards this side.

INSKEEP: Alam has recovered from his wound, and he's hired an armed guard who follows him on his walks in the park. The government condemned the attack, and police investigated, though they have yet to make an arrest. This past spring, journalists protested against several unexplained attacks on reporters. At that protest, a leading journalist gave a speech. His name is Hamid Mir, and he abruptly lost his TV job.

HAMID MIR: I never said anything on my TV channel. I never wrote anything in my newspaper. I just delivered a speech in a protest rally of the journalists, and next day I was informed by the management of my TV channel that you are banned.

INSKEEP: Hamid Mir is one of Pakistan's most famous journalists, whose past scoops included interviews with Osama bin Laden. When Pakistan's cable TV expanded in the early 2000s, he gained the freedom to voice controversial opinions. He's faced pressure before and was even shot and wounded in 2014. Before that, he had to operate under a military ruler. But he says this time is worse.

MIR: Even I must say that when Pervez Musharraf was in power, at least I was aware. He banned me. He used to call me. At least he was not a hypocrite. So he is a lesser evil for me because I was aware who is my enemy. Today, I don't know who banned me.

INSKEEP: Reporters Without Borders, which ranks countries on press freedom, puts Pakistan at 145th, down around Russia and Venezuela. The current prime minister, Imran Khan, is noted for his criticism of the media, but his government denies the state is getting anybody fired. The minister of information is Fawad Chaudhry.

FAWAD CHAUDHRY: Many people were fired because they were not getting ratings, and no one really liked to admit its failures.

INSKEEP: Hamid Mir is someone who has accused the government of pushing him out of television, and he's a very prominent journalist. I don't know his exact ratings at the end, but he's got 6.6 million Twitter followers and was knocked off TV, he says, in Pakistan.

CHAUDHRY: Hamid Mir has not been thrown out by the government. He has been thrown out by his own organization, and the organization obviously feels that he crossed the red line, editorial red line, which the organization, you know, created for its employees. So it's between him and his organization, not between us.

INSKEEP: While the minister denies Pakistan informally controls the media, he says he favors some formal limits. He's proposed a new agency to regulate the media. A special tribunal set up by news organizations themselves would issue fines for false reporting.

CHAUDHRY: Yes. Now the new paradigm is that media has to be regulated, and it is all over the world and especially this new phenomena of social media that has, you know, erupted like a volcano in - around the world. Every region is bringing laws to primarily regulate this new emerging media, and obviously, so is Pakistan.

INSKEEP: The minister maintains that Pakistan still has some of the freest media in the world. And he is right that the media are more free there than in some of Pakistan's neighbors, but like officials in many countries, he contends the debate has become a little too free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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