Information minister claims government has positive relationship with security establishment but final decision-making rests with federal cabinet and prime minister
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on Thursday sought to downplay threats to journalists in Pakistan, claiming during an interview that “everyone in Pakistan” faces threats due to terrorism.
“The situation in Pakistan is not dangerous for journalists only. The situation in the past for Pakistan was dangerous for every citizen because we were fighting this war on terrorism. And yes, many journalists, especially field journalists, have been killed in this war, but so [have] many other civilians,” he told journalist Stephen Sackur during an appearance on BBC’s HARDTalk program. Referring to the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he said the Pakistani context must be kept in mind.
To questions about the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government being unable to reduce incidents of violence against journalists, with an emphasis on this week’s attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor, Chaudhry said Pakistan was “probably one of the freest states as far as media is concerned.” While acknowledging the attack on Toor, he said that police had launched a probe into the incident and the people would soon be apprehended.
However, referring to claims by Toor of his attackers identifying themselves as members of Pakistan’s spy agency, he claimed it was “fashionable” to accuse the ISI every time such an incident took place. “I know there has been a history of people using and taking names of intelligence agencies to get immigration also,” he alleged, and sought to dismiss Pakistan’s status as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists by claiming that such incidents “happen everywhere in the world.”
Claiming the number of attacks on journalists had actually reduced since Prime Minister Imran Khan took office, the minister said anyone who accused any Pakistani organization or intelligence agency of an attack was required to prove their claims.
To Sackur’s questioning of the PTI government’s independence, citing a report by the independent Chatham House that claimed Khan was happy “to do just as he’s told,” Chaudhry accused the U.K.-based think-tank of being “Indian influenced.” Claiming this was not the perception in Pakistan—despite many within the PTI justifying their authority due to ties to the establishment—he said Khan was one of Pakistan’s most popular prime ministers.
“[He] has received more than 200 million votes, he makes the decisions, the cabinet makes the decisions. And yes, we have a very, very good relationship with the so-called establishment; they are part and parcel of Pakistan’s system, we have huge respect for them but the decision-making rests with the prime minister and the cabinet,” he added. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, there were 105.96 million registered voters in the country in 2018; how Khan secured nearly 95 million more votes, as claimed by Chaudhry, is unclear.
Sackur also questioned Chaudhry on BBC Urdu having to shutter operations due to alleged state interference from Pakistani authorities. “Had we thought as aggressively as you just mentioned about the BBC, we would not have allowed the airing of BBC World, which is one of the most-watched international channels in the country and we’ve never obstructed its transmission by any means,” said the minister, adding local media “have to abide by certain local laws.”
To the journalist’s queries on Pakistan’s proposed social media laws—which had called for penalties on anyone found posting content “against the national interest”—Chaudhry claimed the law had not been promulgated “yet” and the concerns were misplaced. Sackur countered: “Isn’t it true that when it comes to issues like attacks on journalists or censorship, you as information minister have no real power? There are other elements in the Pakistani state, some call them the ‘deep state,’ that have powers far superior than yours.”
Chaudhry denied this, saying he was the information minister of “the world’s fifth-largest state [by population] and one of the seven nuclear-armed states of the world. No one can dare undermine me … I am here with full authority and I decide in Pakistan what will happen.”
On the alleged involvement of security agencies in enforced disappearances, the minister said the ISI and the Pakistan Army respected human rights “just as much as any civilian government. They are one of the most civilized armies of the world and they are the most responsible Army of the world.” He also repeated a claim of most missing persons having “actually voluntarily gone into Afghanistan, into troubled areas, and when they went missing, you use agencies and the state for that.” He also suggested that because of Pakistan’s status as a frontline state in the war on terror, there were “special circumstances” required to overcome the crisis.
He stressed: “The least number of missing persons are reported under Imran Khan’s government. We are the only government who have just passed a law against disappearance, we have made illegal confinement a criminal offense and now the bill has been passed by the cabinet and it will go to the Parliament. This is one leap forward in the cases of enforced disappearances.”
The interview concluded with Sackur questioning the PTI’s role in Pakistan’s slow vaccination drive, and Chaudhry defending the government by quoting praise by the president of the U.N. General Assembly. “We have vaccinated 5.5 million people. Frankly, as far as COVID is concerned, Pakistan is a great success story,” the minister maintained.