Pakistan tries to silence media and critics ahead of Imran-Trump meet


By Chidanand Rajghatta
Washington: From blacking out unfavourable media commentary at home to blacklisting critics
in academia and thinktanks in the US, Pakistan has embarked on across-theboard censorship
ahead of Monday’s meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and US President Donald
Trump at the White House.
Blank editorial spaces have been appearing in Pakistani newspapers ahead of Khan’s visit as
articles critical of his military-backed regime have been culled, even as the pro-government
media is drumming up enthusiasm for a visit that the Trump administration is terse and
business-minded about.
Khan arrived in Washington on Saturday evening to a low-key welcome — perceived in some
quarters as a diplomatic snub — as he stepped out of a commercial Qatar Airways flight, only to
be greeted by Pakistani Embassy officials who escorted him to a mobile buggy that transfers all
disembarking passengers to immigration counters.
He was later seen arriving at the Pakistani ambassador’s house, escorted by a full security
detail, suggesting that formal protocol may have begun after his arrival at the airport terminal.
The Pakistani PM’s visit was preceded by a commentary in the New York Times — reportedly
censored in Pakistan — by novelist and social commentator Mohammed Hanif, who in an oped
under the headline “Imran Khan’s ‘New Pakistan’ Is as Good as the Old”, wrote that the country
“looks like a struggling dictatorship”, while outlining political vendetta unleashed by the Imran
Khan government.
Hanif mocked Khan for talking about dignity in rejecting foreign aid while noting that one of his
first moves after taking office was “chauffeuring Arab princes in the hope of getting soft loans”
even though he “pays fewer taxes than many mid-ranking journalists” on assets worth $ 36
million. Hanif denied on Twitter that that particular NYT oped had been blacked out, but
acknowledged the Pakistani establishment had censored him in the past.
But in Washington DC, familiar complaints about Pakistan’s efforts to silence critics and
detractors surfaced again with Christine Fair, associate professor at Georgetown University and
a South Asia scholar, alleging efforts in some thinktanks and national security platforms to
censor her views.
Fair, a trenchant critic of Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment, whose sometimes-
profane critiques online eclipses deep scholarship of national security issues in the
subcontinent, says she has been “disinvited” from discussions on Pakistan at institutions such
as National Defense University (NDU) and the US Institute of Peace (USIP) which are partly
government and tax-payer funded. She says she is also banned from writing in War on The
Rocks (WoTR), an influential foreign policy and national security platform, after a long-running
feud resulting from a critique in which she described a Pakistani analyst as a shill for the
Pakistani establishment.
Indeed, in an email to Fair and Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US and
also a critic of the Pakistan military establishment, an NDU official acknowledged during a 2015
episode that the Pakistani military attache’s office in Washington DC has protested “certainoints of view” on Pakistan, but the NDU leadership had “both weathered the protests and stood
with its people.”
Not true, says Fair, insisting that the NDU and WoTR among others have disinvited her from
commenting and writing about Pakistan because of her views. “Pakistan has grip on influential
institutions in Washington DC and I resent the fact that Pakistanis get to flog their establishment
line on our dime and our time,” Fair told TOI.
While establishment thinktanks in Washington DC typically take their cue from the
administration (witness the remarkable softening of tone on North Korea, a regime that was
reviled not long ago), there’s not much Islamabad or Washington can do about controlling
protests on the streets, which is the domain of the city government. Sundry groups of
disaffected Mohajirs, Sindhi, and Baloch are demonstrating against Pakistan at the Capital One
Arena, Capitol Hill and the White House on Sunday and Monday, revealing the great fissures in
an unstable country that is trying to get back into Washington’s good books.
In fact, Trump, who is himself no great fan of the media or of human rights, gave some hearing
to Pakistan’s critics, meeting representatives of persecuted Ahmadis and Christians in an Oval
office meeting last week, along with a large group of victimised minorities from across the world.
PM Imran Khan arrived in Washington on Saturday to a low-key welcome by Pakistan embassy
officials as he stepped out of a commercial flight.