For many journalists in Pakistan the closure of the office of Radio Mashaal, a Pashto service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), came as a surprise. The authorities shut its main office in Islamabad on January 19 on the directives of the Ministry of Interior, following intelligence reports that programmes of Mashaal were against the interests of Pakistan and in line with a hostile agency’s agenda.
Soon after the action, Reporters Sans Frontiers and local unions of journalists demanded of the Pakistan authorities to re-open Mashaal’s office. Media watchdog: the Committee to Protect Journalists also called on Pakistani authorities to reverse the order of the closure of Mashaal’s office in Islamabad. “The order to close Radio Mashaal’s office in Islamabad is a direct threat to press freedom in the country,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia Programme Coordinator said from Washington DC. He added that Radio Mashaal is an important source of information in Pakistan and should be allowed to continue operating in the country. In its statement, the Khyber Union of Journalists demanded of the government to open the office of Mashaal and remove any hurdles in the line of duty of its reporters.
An official letter by the Ministry of Interior was in circulation on social media which accused Mashaal of running propaganda against Pakistan. “Following are the main themes of the programmes conducted from this channel, 1) Portrayal of Pakistan as a hub of terrorism and safe haven for different militant groups, 2) Propagating Pakistan as a failed state in terms of providing security to its people, especially minorities and Pashtuns, 3) Showing disenchantment of Pashtun population of KP, Fata and Balochistan with the state and 4) Distortion of facts inciting the targeted population against the state and its institutions,” stated an official letter in circulation on social media.
When contacted for a comment on the letter, authorities at Mashaal said they had seen it on social media but had not received any such letter.
Before the closure of the radio’s office in Islamabad, a few groups and individuals had protested against Mashaal in the recent past for negative propaganda against Pakistan and twisting information that is reported from Fata and KP. The workers of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal had launched protests against Mashaal and Deewa, the two US-funded radios, in November 2017, for broadcasting programmes against Islam, Pakistan and Pashtun culture.
According to staff members, the radio and its reporters had received a number of threats from militants in the past years. Those working with Mashaal and running its affairs argue that they always worked responsibly and never against the interests of Pakistan.
Journalism in Pakistan is one of the most dangerous professions due to the law and order situation, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata where most reporters work dangerous beats for meagre salaries. Some of the correspondents in these areas even work without any proper salary. A number of journalists have been target-killed or were killed in bomb attacks. Many have also been picked up by the authorities in the last many years and their houses attacked.
When approached, a Mashaal reporter in Peshawar refused to talk about the issue, saying the high ups in Prague will be in a better position to comment.
“Mashaal, established in January 2010, has a network of correspondents in Pakistan, majority of whom previously worked for Pakistani media outlets,” Daud Khattak, senior editor Radio Mashaal, tells The News on Sunday from its headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. “What we see in the official notification, that Mashaal did not receive directly, are allegations of hatred and anti-Pakistan propaganda, allegations we strongly refute. All our colleagues in Pakistan are Pakistanis and true professionals. Radio Free Europe’s policy is to inform, engage and interact through unbiased news, open debate and responsible discussion,” says Khattak.
The staff members of Mashaal say they are focused on tribal areas only with the aim to counter violent extremism. “It was Taliban’s illegal FM broadcast that misguided the tribal youth through its one-sided propaganda. For that reason, the TTP issued Fatwas against us, apart from sending regular threats. Besides political and security issues, we have educational programmes for youth, such as those that teach how to get admission to a university,” Khattak says while explaining the nature of the network’s broadcasts in Pakistan. He adds that Mashaal Radio also covers health programmes, polio campaigns, music shows, art and culture etc.
“And on top of all that, we are covering issues that the mainstream media is not highlighting, for example, clean drinking water, non-availability of schools, health clinics, girls’ education, agriculture etc. We connect the locals with officials through our programmes, thus bridging the gap between Pakistani tribesmen living in the villages and senior officials in the cities,” says Daud Khattak. He informs that previously they had not received any concerns from the government or any other department. “Had we got anything, we would have preferred to address it, and if found valid, would definitely have taken steps to review our programmes.”
But according to the senior editor of the radio, several Mashaal employees were investigated from time to time in the past while others were held for days by security officials. “We were never formally informed about the objections and action against Mashaal though.”
In his statement issued after the closure of their office in Islamabad, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said, “Mashaal serves no intelligence agency or government. Our reporters are Pakistani citizens who are dedicated to their country and live and raise families in the villages from where they report. We demand that their safety be ensured, and that they be permitted to resume their work without fear or delay.”