Online censorship in Pakistan appears to be on the rise with journalists in the country complaining of a serious crackdown on content deemed critical of the government.
Journalism in Pakistan has always been a tough job with reporters having to deal with aggressive military regimes, a growth in Muslim conservatism, and the risk of being beaten or jailed.
But under the government of former international cricketer Imran Khan, they are facing a whole new challenge and many are being forced to turn to VPNs to access the internet freely.
Khan’s administration has made big cuts to the government’s advertising budget and one consequence of this is that a major source of revenue for Pakistani news outlets has been significantly diminished.
In addition, the Pakistani security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is also putting more and more pressure on media outlets to pull critical content.
Increasing ISI censorship
A number of online news sites have been blocked in recent months. The most prominent among these has been the Urdu language site of Voice Of America, which is run by the US State Department. They have recently been critical of Pakistani operations in the border regions with Afghanistan.
Other reporters say they have been contacted directly by ISI officers and instructed to pull opinion pieces or investigatory reporting which is critical of either the government or the military.
The result of these shutdowns is that an increasing number of news outlets are beginning to self-censor content to try and stay online. But even this isn’t easy.
As one veteran Pakistani journalist, Qazi Salauddin, told Al Jazeera, “Today we don’t know what will annoy them. Today we have to do self-censorship and that is the worst kind of censorship, because it is done out of fear.”
Criminal threats and social media
It is not just this type of censorship which Pakistani journalists are in fear of. They are also running the risk of criminal charges being brought against them too.
One journalist, Cyril Almeida, published an interview with former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which Sharif claimed that the Pakistani military had funded the group responsible for the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. He has since been charged with treason.
Social media too is feeling the full force of Pakistani censorship efforts. Thousands of pages on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been targeted with Pakistani requests to take down sites among the highest in the world.
The reasons for these requests are frequently spurious and have included such things as criticism of the military, insulting to Islam, and propagating hate.
One Pakistani activist, who uses Twitter from France where he lives in self-imposed exile after an attempt on his life by the ISI, had his account suspended twice in three days by Twitter.
The situation has been summed up neatly by one journalist, Matiullah Jan. He described the crackdown as “a systematic attempt by the military and its intelligence agency to assert control with a facade of a democratically elected government”.
For their part, the Pakistani Government has denied that they are censoring the media at all.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry recently told AFP, “Pakistan has the freest media possible, and powerful media criticise the government and even agencies and (the) army establishment at their will. Incitement of hatred is the only area that we interfere.”
How to use VPNs to get around censorship in Pakistan
But journalists hotly dispute this and many are now turning to VPNs to ensure that they can post content privately, anonymously, and without fear of reprisals.
Likewise, a growing number of Pakistani internet users are resorting to VPNs such as ExpressVPN to enable them to access online content freely, including the various sites which have been blocked by the Pakistani military and the Imran Khan government.
With censorship continuing to grow in Pakistan, this trend looks likely to continue and more and more Pakistani internet users are likely to find they need a VPN to access free and open internet content in 2019.
With the Khan government looking to be increasingly cosy with the Pakistani military, it seems likely that opposition politicians may also need to use VPNs if they want to go about their democratic activities freely.
VPN’s will continue to allow anyone in Pakistan to get around their Government’s censorship, but it to be hoped that this trend is reversed rather than continued and that Pakistan can continue to thrive as a free and democratic country in 2019 and beyond.