October 10, 2023

Staff report


In the same manner as Usman Dar, a former member of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Sadaqat Abbasi, has also declared his separation from the party. This announcement was made during an interview with the private news channel, Dawn. Following the interview, on Tuesday, the Rawalpindi Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) extended bail for Abbasi in connection with the May 9 riots.

The ATC approved his bail application, contingent upon the submission of surety bonds worth Rs 50,000.

On Monday, on a show called ‘Live with Adil Shahzeb’, former Member of National Assembly (MNA) Abbasi made his first media appearance after his alleged disappearance for a month. During the interview, Abbasi declared Imran Khan as the mastermind behind the May 9 attacks, stating that the PTI supremo had peddled a narrative aimed at inciting violence against the military establishment, which ultimately led to the attacks on military installations by enraged mobs following his dramatic arrest. 

A series of ‘unusual’ events

A few days earlier, a similar interview was conducted with PTI leader Usman Dar, who reportedly went missing on September 6 as per his party’s claims. After no word to the courts and to his family of his whereabouts, he appeared for the first time in nearly a month in an interview with journalist Kamran Shahid for Dunya News.

In his statement, Dar asserted, “Undoubtedly, the incidents of May 9 were orchestrated to disrupt the appointment of the Army Chief. I believe that Imran Khan also received information from sources within the institution, indicating that the long march could potentially influence either the appointment or the removal of General Asim Munir.”

Dar also declared his resignation from the PTI and from politics altogether, emphasizing that he embarked on his political journey with Khan at the helm and was now concluding it at the very same starting point.

Regarding his absence, Dar explained that it was a strategic move on his part, although his mother had been actively expressing concerns on social media platforms, urging authorities to investigate her son’s disappearance.

A petition was submitted regarding his disappearance by his brother, who submitted that Dar was apprehended by unidentified individuals in plainclothes on September 9, near the heavily guarded Malir Cantonment area of Karachi.

In a similar fashion, Abbasi first went ‘missing’ on September 1, according to a petition filed by Babar Awan in the Islamabad High Court that he had been ‘kidnapped’ by unknown plainclothes men within the limits of the Kohsar police station. At the time it was alleged that Islamabad Police was behind this ‘abduction’, but it was neither denied nor confirmed. 

A few days after the petition was filed, on September 14, Justice Tariq Mehmood Jahangiri of the Islamabad High Court criticized the Capital Police for their lack of progress in locating Abbasi, and questioned the police how it was possible for someone to vanish from the Red Zone without any leads as to their whereabouts.

In response, the Capital Police submitted a progress report to the court, indicating that efforts to recover Abbasi were underway, such as the circulation of an advertisement and direction to send information to provincial Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) offices, including those in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. Additionally, a request was made to gather information about Abbasi, including a report of his WhatsApp messages.

No information of his whereabouts was available until October 4.

It was then revealed on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) that journalist Adil Shahzeb had recorded an interview with Abbasi for Dawn. Journalist Ali Mustafa, the source of this information, stated that Abbasi was brought to Dawn News by a serving army official, and that the media outlet’s management had declined to air the interview.

Later, in a detailed vlog, Islamabad-based journalist Asad Ali Toor provided insights into the circumstances surrounding Abbasi’s interview.

According to Toor, Abbasi arrived in two Vigo vehicles late at night, allegedly accompanied by plainclothes men. Upon their arrival, they met with Shahzeb and his team, but Toor’s sources indicated that Dawn’s higher management was not informed of this interview. He also reported that the accompanying men took charge of the news channel’s building security, and that sources noted that Abbasi appeared discontented and struggled to navigate the studio hallways despite having visited several times before.

The news of this interview caused a stir on social media. Dawn’s decision to allegedly ‘delete’ the interview was commended for upholding the principles of ethical journalism by various quarters. However, other sources shared details about what was discussed in the interview. 

A day after Toor’s vlog, a video surfaced on social media showing Abbasi reuniting with his family, including his mother. He appeared visibly emotional, shedding tears, while his mother wailed in relief at seeing her son. Social media users sharing the video referred to it as his reunion with his family. 

According to news sources, this meeting took place on October 3 after an ATC in Rawalpindi granted him pre-arrest bail in a case until October 10. Abbasi also faced other cases related to the attack on military installations following the May 9 riots.

Three days later, Arifa Noor, a prominent journalist affiliated with Dawn, posted on X that, “Sahafat ka janaza hai, zara jhoom [dhoom] say niklay” (This is a funeral for journalism, there should be fanfare). Shortly after this post, Abbasi’s interview with Adil was broadcast.

Subsequently, discussions about the interview’s credibility and substance commenced. The program began with Shahzeb discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict and, after a commercial break, he segued into the Abbasi interview, clarifying that it had been pre-recorded a few days earlier.

During the interview, Abbasi disclosed that he chose to go into hiding and was in Gilgit Baltistan with his family. He expressed his fear of legal repercussions following May 9, citing numerous FIRs registered against him. Abbasi emphasized that due to the prevailing narrative he could no longer continue as a member of the PTI and declared his decision to step down from politics. With this, Abbasi joined a growing list of politicians, including Dar, Fawad Chaudhry, Shireen Mazari and Pervez Khattak, who parted ways with Imran Khan and his party after the May 9 riots.

The interview seemed to have been conducted in a tense atmosphere, as Abbasi appeared visibly uneasy. He can be seen frequently shifting his gaze, while his speech has a slight stutter.

During the interview, an unusual incident occurred when the anchor person’s phone rang, which is uncommon in established newsrooms.

Journalist Mansoor Ali Khan scrutinized the interview’s content and remarked that he had never seen Abbasi wearing such heavy makeup, which he alleged was apparent in this interview.

Social media users have also weighed in, offering their theories about the pressure Abbasi may have been under during the interview, pointing out red marks on his face.

Various speculations have arisen regarding the overall context of the interview and the circumstances under which the program was broadcast. Journalist Hassan Ayub Khan, speaking on behalf of Shahzeb, stated that, “According to [Shahzeb], he is under an obligation. But once he receives approval from the organization, he will address all those people engaging in negative speculation.”

Hassan Ayub Khan added that Shahzeb asserts that the interview was intended to be shared on the day it aired.

Veteran journalists lament current state of media

Speaking to Voicepk.net, former Secretary General of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) Nasir Zaidi stated that the media and its workers have a responsibility, as opinion-makers and analysts, to not just air a statement as is but to also highlight the context and circumstances which surround an interview.

“The media will report on what an individual would state first hand. However, if the media is playing the role of an opinion maker and an analyst, then it should recognise the circumstances under which an individual gives their statement. The media has a responsibility to present both facets,” he said. “Under the ethical code of journalism, the media should have also reported on the context and circumstances surrounding [Usman Dar and Sadaqat Abbasi’s] disappearance, their sudden u-turn as well as their psychological state-of-being while giving the interview.”

Zaidi, a key figure in the struggle for free speech during General Zia-ul-Haq’s era, felt that Abbasi’s interview with Dawn made it apparent that Pakistan’s press and media are suffering a never-before-seen censorship.

“This is the worst type of attack on the press. In Pakistan’s history, there has never been censorship of the press like it is now,” he opined. “One form of censorship is live censorship, the second is imposed by those unseen powers through policy, and the third is where media owners are advised on what to publish and what not to publish. Right now, all three forms of censorship are active in Pakistan. I feel that the press is in a dangerous situation, it is in crisis. Journalists are being laid off, print media is dying out, and a policy of control is fully effective.”

“An unholy alliance of media owners, the government and the establishment are strangling the press.”

Veteran journalist Khawar Naeem Hashmi, who along with Zaidi was also publicly flogged for advocating for press freedoms in 1978, said that journalists have been subtracted from the equation as all power on what can be broadcast and printed now lies in the hands of private media owners motivated by profit.

“The game is in the hands of media owners, while the journalist has been removed from the equation. However, it must also stand that when a journalist uses his words, either in writing or in a speech, he should not give priority to his personal ideologies,” he expressed his views to Voicepk.net.

Referring to Dar’s interview, he expressed his immense disappointment that Kamran Shahid would conduct the interview regardless of the circumstances surrounding the former PTI leader’s disappearance and sudden shift in narrative.

“I was a big admirer of Kamran Shahid as well as his father. In my opinion [Kamran] is one of the boldest anchors in Pakistan. But when I saw [Dar’s] interview, [it was apparent] that it had been forced. After all the fame, power and respect Kamran has managed to garnered as a journalist, he should have declined to conduct this ‘sponsored’ interview. Kamran has stained his entire career by conducting this interview.”

Journalist Munizae Jahangir shared her thoughts with Voicepk.net and said, “Media has sunk to a new low simply because in the past we have seen that the media has resisted planted stories. But now the media has become a platform for all of those who have turned against their own party and it is astounding that people who have been victims of enforced disappearances have been brought into TV channels.”

Jahangir believes that it was not clear if Dar and Abbasi were still in the ‘illegal’ custody of security agencies or not, and if they were indeed brought in with the illegal custody of security agencies then the confession was clearly under duress and the media should not have taken part in this act of recording the statement of a person who had been illegally detained.

“I feel this is not just unethical, it is bordering on aiding and abetting a crime,” she added.

Award-winning journalist and columnist Hamid Mir stated that the fashion with which Dar and Abbasi’s interviews were conducted are not new, and that the ‘power players and stakeholders’ have been using media as a tool to accomplish their goals. He however expressed that what these interviews have done is highlight the fact that Pakistan’s media is under an unannounced censorship.

“The security establishment is trying to use the media for its own purposes. These same clamps were used when Imran Khan was Prime Minister, and now they have slapped them on his wrists under the caretaker government. People are under the impression that this is a ‘tit-for-tat’, but this is certainly not the case,” he told Voicepk.net, adding the Dar and Abbasi interviews are in gross violation of PEMRA’s code of ethics, as well as the ethics of journalism.

“The silence adopted by Pakistan’s journalist bodies has also been made apparent. They have effectively become collaborators, and have exposed the downfall of Pakistan’s media. It was not just these two media channels that were exposed through these interviews, the media in its entirety has been exposed. As a journalist and TV anchor, I am ashamed to be associated with this dirty media,” he posited.

Is the media complicit in a crime?

Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court Abid Saqi explained that considering the pressure under which journalists like Kamran Shahid and Adil Shahzeb were expected to conduct the allegedly under-duress interviews of the formerly forcibly disappeared politicians does not warrant abetment charges against them.

“It is not abetment when the persons are released after coming to an understanding, and they record their statement in front of the media,” he stated.

Press censorship during the British Raj

Pakistan’s tussle with press censorship traces its roots to the Gagging Act of 1857, which was passed to regulate the Indian press (particularly publications in indigenous languages) in the midst of the 1857 rebellion. Under this act, all printing presses required a license from the British government while any material deemed to dispute the Raj’s policies or attempting to incite resistance against the state was subject to swift censorship.

In 1878, the British government inculcated the Vernacular Press Act in order to dissuade public criticism and opposition to the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1870-80). The law, which takes its name from the Latin word for “native”, only applied to publications in languages other than English.

The Act was eventually repealed in 1882, however this did not translate into complete freedom of expression. In a historical first, an Indian journalist was imprisoned in 1883 for criticizing a judge of the Calcutta High Court for his insensitivity toward Bengali sentiments.

The struggle for free speech after independence

Pakistan’s 76-year long history is peppered with scattered but prolonged periods of repression of press freedoms. After gaining independence, Pakistan’s press flourished up until October 1958 with the imposition of the country’s first martial law.

In 1960, President General Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-1969) promulgated the Press and Publications Ordinance, granting the regime extensive control over the press, including the powers to ban any publication which brought into “hatred or contempt the government established by law in Pakistan or any class or section of the citizens of Pakistan” among other restrictions.

While this period too saw arrests of journalists, state repression of freedom of speech and retribution against criticism was at its most merciless during the reign of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988). Every news piece was required to receive government approval – to this end, pages ready for printing would be taken to the information department where appointed officers would scrutinize every letter and image. If any objectionable material (especially criticism of the government and its policies), the officer would instruct that it be removed from the final print.

In the early days of this era of censorship, newspapers would simply leave a blank space to indicate to readers that information had been deliberately omitted. To curb this, the authorities issued fresh orders to the press to keep additional news items on hand to fill in blank spaces.

On October 17, 1979, the Karachi-based Daily Musawat and Daily Sadaqat were the first casualties of the Zia regime, with the Sindh government under directives of the military placing an immediate ban on their publication.

On May 13, 1978, military courts sentenced 11 journalists under Martial Law regulations 5 and 33 for organizing meetings at an open place, raising anti-state slogans and displaying banners, and going on a hunger strike. Of these, Masudullah Khan, Iqbal Jafferi, Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Nasir Zaidi were the first four journalists in the history of Pakistan and the subcontinent to be publicly flogged (although Khan stated in a 2012 interview that he was spared the penalty after a doctor declared he would not be able to survive it).

General Zia-ul-Haq’s untimely and grisly demise brought with it some reprieve for the press and the journalist community. During Pakistan’s fourth tango with martial law, President General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), media organizations now under the ownership of businesses expanded in scale and size but were still subject to censorship. In 2002, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance was promulgated, giving the government broad control over electronic media, facilitating harassment, intimidation and physical attacks on journalists, as well as complete blackouts for certain channels and anchorpersons.

The most recent round of press and media censorship can be traced to May 9, 2023, after the arrest of the deposed Imran Khan sparked nationwide protests, many of which involved attacks on military buildings and monuments. Print and broadcast media was subsequently barred from mentioning or sharing footage/images of Khan, while political journalists and YouTubers sympathetic to or allied with the PTI were detained.

Sami Ibrahim was reportedly abducted on May 24, after eight people travelling in four cars intercepted his vehicle on his way from work in Islamabad. He later returned home in the early hours of May 30 before checking in to a medical facility to recuperate.

Roughly two weeks earlier, in the early hours of May 11, Imran Riaz Khan was apprehended from Sialkot airport by police. The same day, the Lahore High Court issued orders for his release. Upon exiting the jail premises at around 10:30 pm, he reportedly went missing. In the four months that followed, the police and government repeatedly denied that the he was in custody of any state institution. On September 20, the Lahore High Court issued a “last warning” to the police to recover Riaz Khan by September 26, however the missing journalist returned home to his family a day before the given deadline.


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