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2018: A year of media suppression and rights abuses in Pakistan | Pakistan

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“Sneaky”, “sinister” and “Orwellian” are just some of the words Pakistani journalists and human rights defenders used to describe the censorship and growing clampdown on dissent, mainstream and social media in their country over the past year.

Although previous Pakistani governments also put pressure on civil society and the media, this year, many Pakistanis working in these fields I talked to felt that direct and indirect repression has increased significantly.

Attacks on the media 

As we were wrapping up 2018, there were a number of incidents that solidified the perception that the situation in the country has really gotten worse.

In early December, the Pakistani authorities blocked the website of Voice of America’s Pashto language radio service.

Then on December 8, a police case was filed against dozens of people in the aftermath of a rally organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement – PTM), which campaigns for Pashtun rights. Among them were two journalists Sailaab Mehsud, affiliated with Dawn newspaper and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Mashaal Radio, and Zafar Wazir of the local channel Khyber TV, who had been covering the rally.

On December 14, Pakistan’s electronic media regulatory authority (PEMRA) issued an advisory note calling on media outlets not to report excessively on topics such as violence, kidnapping, sexual abuse, terrorism and natural disasters. 

This document came after a similar one was issued in advance of the July parliamentary elections, which called on the media not to air “derogatory and malicious content” against the judiciary and the army. These regulatory letters purportedly aim to build a “positive image” of the country and address the “negative perception” of Pakistan globally, but many see them as a form of pressure on the media.

Then on December 15, Jang Group, the country’s leading media house, fired hundreds of staffers en masse, closing down a number of its outlets.

Over the past year, a number of media organisations have had to downsize or close down due to declining advertising revenue or other financial constraints. Journalists I have talked to believe that this is a tactic to control the media and impose more “friendly” reporting on the authorities. 

They also say that printing presses have been pressured to stop from publishing certain newspapers, cable operators have been asked to cease broadcasting certain channels and big businesses have been advised against putting up advertisements with certain media outlets.

The media have also been pressured to fire certain employees who have been too critical of the Pakistani establishment. This year, leading prime-time news show hosts Talat Hussain, Murtaza Solangi, Mateeullah Jan, and Nusrat Javed either quit or lost their jobs. What they have in common is that they all questioned the transparency of the July elections and openly criticised the jailing of the former PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Mariam Nawaz.  

Journalists I talked to also shared their frustration with the increasing pressure and censorship in Pakistani newsrooms.

“It was ridiculous how we had to keep beeping off Nawaz Sharif when he would appear in court and during the election coverage. Election day was one of the worst days in my career as a producer in the newsroom, and I have seen the Musharraf era. We were not allowed to counter the official narrative of the authorities,” a senior producer of a news bulletin of a prominent cable news network told me.  

An editor of an English-language daily complained that a “screening process” was set up in his newsroom under the explicit directions of the publisher which resulted in everyday interference and forced removal of editorials and op-eds.

Pressure on civil society

In addition to an intensifying clampdown on the media and the resulting self-censorship, the authorities are now pushing hard to further suppress the civic space and impose the official narrative on the human rights situation in the country after the July election.

In 2018, the authorities escalated pressure on human rights defenders and activists peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. They faced arrests, disappearances, accusations of treason, and violent threats from hardliner groups. The government has also stepped up filing complaints with social media companies against its online critics.

Recently, Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry admitted that the authorities want to regulate social media. Over the past several months, a number of human rights defenders and activists have received emails from Twitter that their tweets violate the country’s law; some accounts have even been suspended.

There have also been a number of human rights defenders, journalists and members of the legal profession who have either had to go into hiding or move to another country. Journalist Taha Siddiqui, for example, had to leave with his immediate family after narrowly escaping an abduction attempt.

The current government also continued the campaign the previous one started against non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As a result, this year some 18 international NGOs were forced to discontinue operations in the country, including Action Aid and Plan International. 

Another prominent target of the Pakistani authorities’ assault on civil society this year was the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

Many of its members, including two MPs, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, are facing police cases for taking part in rallies and corner meetings of the PTM.

In July, Hayat Preghal, a Pashtun human rights defender, was detained for a few days. He later faced charges of “anti-state” online expression via social media for his posts in support of PTM.

Preghal, who worked as a pharmacist in the United Arab Emirates, was in Pakistan on leave. Following the court hearing, his name was put on a no-fly list and as a result, Preghal, who is the primary breadwinner of his family, lost his job. He is yet another victim of what appears to be a campaign of targeted economic pressure against political dissidents and human rights activists. 

Over the summer, Wrranga Lunri, a Pashtun women’s rights advocate and supporter of PTM, also faced an intimidation campaign and had to relocate from her hometown in Balochistan. She was targeted for being a woman and an organiser, speaking out in public about her cause.

These are just a few of many examples of people who have fallen victim to the increasing intolerance for freedom of speech and human rights activism in Pakistan.

It is clear that this year the Pakistani authorities not only failed to abide by their constitutional and international commitments to ensure respect for rights and freedoms, but they actually actively engaged in campaigns of intimidation and censorship.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that 2019 would be any different in this regard.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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