Don’t cover Imran Khan’s PTI: Pakistan’s media told to censor popular ex-PM

Journalist Amir Mehmood* was getting ready for work when his phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message.

As a member of the top management at a private news channel in Pakistan’s second-largest city, Lahore, Mehmood was used to getting non-stop calls and messages, even at odd hours.

But the name of the sender of that message on Tuesday morning caught his attention and he immediately picked up his phone. It was an official who belonged to the country’s powerful military, which has directly ruled over Pakistan for more than three decades of its 75-year existence as a constitutional republic and has controlled most levers of power, from behind the scenes, even when civilian governments have been in office.

“Basically, the person pointed out some of our election coverage and said we must not use the flags of PTI or mention their affiliation with candidates backed by the party. It instructed us to clearly identify the candidates only as ‘independent’ and not show which party they were related to,” Mehmood told Al Jazeera.

Mehmood is among multiple journalists working in newsrooms of different TV news channels and web outlets, who have told Al Jazeera of instructions they have received effectively imposing near-blanket censorship on coverage of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party ahead of the nation’s February 8 elections.

PTI, founded by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, is widely seen as possibly the country’s most popular political party. But Khan, a cricketing icon, has been imprisoned since August 2023 as he awaits trials over charges of corruption and leaking of state secrets – allegations he dismisses as being politically motivated.

Since he lost a confidence vote in parliament in April 2022 and was forced out of power, Khan and his PTI have faced a crackdown. Tens of thousands of the PTI’s members were arrested and hundreds of leaders have quit the party – many under alleged pressure by the military.

The nomination papers of Khan and dozens of his party leaders for the February 8 elections were rejected by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the poll commission’s decision to strip the PTI of its election symbol – a cricket bat – forcing many of the party’s candidates to contest the vote as independents.

Pakistani media was already barred from reporting Khan’s speeches or rallies on TV. But now, the restrictions on coverage of the PTI appear to have become even more expansive.

No flag, no reference

As soon as Mehmood received the WhatsApp message, he shared it with his boss. After a brief discussion, the two issued a channel-wide notice to remove PTI references from all visuals, graphics and talking points, and identify its candidates solely as independents, with no mention of the party they represent.

Of the seven journalists Al Jazeera spoke to, six insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals from their organisations. Three of them, including Mehmood, confirmed receiving instructions on Tuesday to not run PTI flags or show party affiliations with their candidates.

A Lahore-based executive producer at one of the top news channels also confirmed receiving instructions from his management, which said that candidates endorsed by the PTI must not be identified as such.

“We are told to not even display the PTI party flag with their name, and to emphasise that they are only independent candidate,” he told Al Jazeera.

Murtaza Solangi, Pakistan’s caretaker information minister, however, denied the claims. “We have NOT issued any orders like that,” he replied to Al Jazeera in a WhatsApp message.

The country’s media regulator, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has so far not issued an official statement or order that concerns restricting coverage of any party. It did not respond to queries by Al Jazeera on whether such instructions had been issued.

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