Global watchdog accuses PTI-led government of utilizing ‘increasingly draconian censorship’ to silence criticism, vilify journalists and bloggers
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a gallery of “predators of press freedom,” has accused Prime Minister Imran Khan of being a “predator” who wields the military and “dictatorial tendencies” to target critics and silence journalists covering “annoying stories.”
The 2021 list, published after five years, contains 37 heads of state or government who the global watchdog working to safeguard the right to freedom of information accuses of cracking down “massively” on press freedom. “Some of these predators of press freedom have been operating for more than two decades, while others have just joined the blacklist, which for the first time includes two women and a European predator,” it said in a press release accompanying the gallery. Khan, in power since 2018, is making his first appearance on the 2021 list, notes the RSF. The common factor in all the names cited, it says, is that “all are heads of state or government who trample on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus, jailing journalists arbitrarily or inciting violence against them, when they don’t have blood on their hands because they have directly or indirectly pushed for journalists to be murdered.”
“Each of these predators has their own style. Some impose a reign of terror by issuing irrational and paranoid orders. Others adopt a carefully constructed strategy based on draconian laws. A major challenge now is for these predators to pay the highest possible price for their oppressive behavior. We must not let their methods become the new normal,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
For each of the “predators,” RSF has compiled a file identifying their “predatory method,” how they censor and persecute journalists, and their “favorite targets”—the kinds of journalists and media outlets they go after. The file also includes quotations from speeches or interviews in which they “justify” their predatory behavior, as well as their country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index.
Khan and Modi
Pakistan was ranked 145 out of 180 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. In its profile of P.M. Khan, the RSF notes that he “likes the limelight.” Summarizing his ascent from a cricketer to the premiership, it alleges that the “deep state” sought to bolster his chances in the run-up to the 2018 general elections. “With his ideological mix of populism and religious conservatism, Khan was seen as the ideal candidate to look good on the public stage without ever questioning the all-powerful military’s authority behind the scenes,” reads the profile, which accuses the prime minister of taking center-stage even as “all forms of independent journalism” are suppressed by intelligence agencies.
“Cases of brazen censorship are legion since Khan became prime minister,” it states. “Newspaper distribution has been interrupted, media outlets have been threatened with the withdrawal of advertising and TV channel signals have been jammed. Journalists who cross the red lines have been threatened, abducted and tortured. In the shadows, behind Khan in the limelight, Pakistan is reliving some of the worst moments of its past military dictatorships,” it adds.
The profile says critics are the incumbent government’s favorite targets, claiming journalists and bloggers have been warned to either stop reporting on “annoying stories” or risk never being seen alive again. “Even those who have chosen to live abroad for security reasons have been subjected to intimidation attempts and physical attacks in the countries where they thought they had found a refuge,” it claims and laments that cyberspace is also being subjected to increasingly draconian censorship measures. “… Troll armies harass and vilify all journalists and bloggers who dare express criticism, automatically labeling them as anti-Pakistan, anti-military and … anti-Khan. The circle is complete.”
India, meanwhile, ranks 142 out of 180 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. In its profile of P.M. Narendra Modi, the RSF cites his “predatory method” as using national-populism and disinformation. “After becoming Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001, he used this western state as a laboratory for the news and information control methods he deployed after being elected as India’s prime minister in 2014,” it says, claiming Modi floods mainstream media with speeches and information in bid to legitimize his national-populist ideology. “To this end, he has developed close ties with billionaire businessmen who own vast media empires. This insidious strategy works in two ways. On the one hand, by visibly ingratiating himself with the owners of leading media outlets, their journalists know they risk dismissal if they criticize the government. On the other, prominent coverage of his extremely divisive and derogatory speeches, which often constitute disinformation, enables the media to achieve record audience levels,” it notes, adding Modi also neutralizes media outlets and journalists that question his divisive methods.
Much like in Pakistan, claims RSF, Modi also counts on “an army of online trolls known as ‘yodha’ (warriors), who wage appalling hate campaigns on social media against the journalists they don’t like, campaigns that almost routinely include calls for the journalists to be killed.” His favorite target has been described as “sickulars” and “presstitutes”—portmanteaus of “sick” and “secular” and “press” and “prostitutes,” respectively. “Modi devotees … bring lawsuits against them, defame them in the mainstream media and coordinate online attacks against them,” it adds.
In addition to Khan and Modi, the list features Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko; Iran’s Ali Khamenei; Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; Hong Kong’ Carrie Lam; Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega; Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon; Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa; Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymoukhammedov; Bahrain’s Hamed bin Isa al-Khalifa; Cambodia’s Hun Sen; Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev; Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh; Eritrea’s Issaias Afwerki; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro; North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un; Cuba’s Miguel Diaz-Canel; Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing; Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed bin Salman; Vietnam’s Nguyen Phu Trong; Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro; Cameroon’s Paul Biya; Rwanda’s Paul Kagame; Thailand’s Prayut Chan-o-Cha; Russia’s Ramzan Kadyrov; Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte; South Sudan’s Salva Kiir; Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina; Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo; Hungary’s Viktor Orban; Russia’s Vladimir Putin; China’s Xi Jinping; and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.