Twitter campaign by Pakistani ruling party warns media against anti-state criticism

Screenshot from YouTube Video by Naya Daur.

Pakistani Journalists are grappling with increased censorship and repression by State authorities. In early July, a recorded interview of former Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari was taken off air and many journalists began sounding the alarm against what is seen as an infringement on press freedom.

Most recently, journalists critical of the government and military have been targeted by the ruling political party via Tweets that warn the media to refrain from the “abuse of freedom of expression”.

The 2018 general elections, which brought Imran Khan and ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to power, also brought with it policies that independent watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders are calling “censorship” tactics. Other groups have also noted the general deterioration of the country's once-vibrant media environment.

On 16 July 2019, the ruling party's official Twitter handle,@PTIofficial, sent over two dozen tweets stating that critical coverage by the press may be deemed anti-state and has the potential to be seen as “treason”:

Ramsha Jahangir wrote in the Dawn:

At least four hashtags targeting journalism emerged on Twitter on Tuesday — two of the trends became top trends in Pakistan.

Analysis of one such trend #JournalismNotAgenda reveals that besides the PTI’s official verified account, other accounts participating in the campaign were also several factions of the PTI’s social media wing. The top tweets in the hashtag (over 20 tweets per account) were sent out by PTI’s Lahore wing and PTI West Punjab chapter.

According to her report, the prime minister's focal person on digital media, Dr. Arslan Khalid, said that PTI's official tweets were being blown out of proportion. According to him, the idea behind the series of tweets was not to ridicule but to ‘educate’ the media.

Educating or undermining the media?

The Twitter campaign launched by PTI's Twitter account focused on what they called “responsible reporting” and was widely shared with the hashtag, #JournalismNotAgenda. A series of tweets both in English and Urdu asked journalists to “Be responsible and Build The Nation”.

The PTI Official account even tweeted about how freedom of speech should not ‘hurt’ national interests or the State. Some of the tweets accused journalists of spreading partisan agendas and profiting at the same time:

The official PTI account also criticized journalists who spoke about PM Imran Khan’s personal life:

Recently Pakistan’s print and electronic media has faced economic losses, as a result, a large number of newspapers have closed down and journalists have been laid off. PTI Official cast blame for these economic losses on a lack of “quality reporting”:

Some ministers have jumped on the bandwagon and began actively shared the hashtag on social media, criticizing journalists for being irresponsible and demanding that they not hurt national interests.

PTI’s Central Information Secretary Omer Sarfaraz Cheema tweeted:

MNA and Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Kashmir Affairs & Gilgit Baltistan Sobia Kamal Khan also told journalists to be ‘loyal to Pakistan’

Besides the PTI official Tweets, another Twitter campaign was initiated with the hashtag #layofflifafaJournalists asking media outlets to lay off journalists who are allegedly getting paid to further the agenda of other parties – including what they are calling a ‘foreign agenda’.

In a response, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the tweets by the PTI official handle:

Journalist Benazir Shah told The Hindu that these Twitter messages are not just “irresponsible,” they are outright “dangerous” for Pakistani journalists, putting them and their organizations at risk.

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