Pakistan has banned live broadcasts of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speeches and booked him on terrorism charges in what critics swiftly denounced as “repressive policies.”
Khan, 70, has regularly addressed large anti-government rallies of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party since his ouster from power in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April.
Hours after he spoke at a massive rally Saturday in the capital, Islamabad, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordered television channels in the country not to show Khan’s future live speeches. However, it allowed airing of only pre-recorded speeches by Khan.
PERMA asserted in its statement that the opposition leader was “leveling baseless allegations and spreading hate speech through his provocative statements against state institutions and officers.”
The statement came in response to Khan’s resolve on Saturday that he would bring lawsuits against senior police officers and a female judge for their role in the alleged torture of his detained close aide, Shahbaz Gill.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah on Sunday rejected accusations Gill was tortured. “I can confirm with full responsibly as the interior minister that no torture was inflicted on Gill while in police custody," he told a news conference in Islamabad.
Khan addressed another big rally in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjacent to Islamabad, to reiterate his criticism. But the speech was not broadcast live and Pakistani authorities allegedly also blocked YouTube service to disrupt the speech.
“The fascist Imported govt sunk to a new low today by banning live coverage of my speeches on TV & then blocking YouTube temporarily during my speech at Liaquat Bagh. All this after continuous intimidation of mediapersons & taking channels off air earlier,” Khan tweeted after the rally.
“This is not only a gross violation of freedom of speech but also negatively affects the digital media industry and the livelihoods of many,” he tweeted.
The government did not respond to the allegations it was behind disruption of the YouTube service.
NetBlocks, a London-based organization tracking internet outages, confirmed the disruption of YouTube on multiple internet providers in Pakistan Sunday, saying it came as Khan made a live broadcast to the public.
“NetBlocks recommends against the use of network disruptions and social media restrictions to counter protests, given their disproportionate impact to fundamental rights including freedom of expression and freedom assembly,” the watchdog cautioned.
On Sunday, the federal police booked Khan under anti-terrorism law, accusing him of "terrorizing and threatening" police officers as well as the female judge in his speech the previous day.
PTI leaders and thousands of Khan’s supporters rushed to his residence on the outskirts of Islamabad late Sunday in a bid to resist any attempt by police to arrest him, fueling political tensions in the country. Supporters in other cities also took to the streets to protest against the possible arrest of Khan.
Gill was arrested on sedition charges August 10 for allegedly making anti-military comments on a TV channel that was subsequently suspended by the government. He was admitted to a government hospital in the capital this week after his health deteriorated in police custody.
The military has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 75-year history through coups against democratically elected governments, and criticism of the powerful institution is considered a red line.
Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South Asia at Washington’s Wilson Center, told VOA, Khan’s troubles stemmed from his “vitriolic and nasty” comments. “But the government’s apparent hope of silencing him will only fire up his ever-growing rank and file and rabid supporters."
Kugelman said the Sharif government should be wary that such tactics would make Khan stronger rather than weakening him.
“Its dysfunctional and repressive policies play to his strengths as a populist and enable him to channel public outrage to his advantage. The numbers in those huge crowds don’t lie,” Kugelman said.
Khan’s PTI won the 2018 elections, promising to rid the country of entrenched corruption and cronyism. But rising inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and Pakistan’s deeply rooted economic problems kept his ousted government under sustained opposition criticism.
The former prime minister remains the most popular leader, especially among Pakistani youth, and his rallies prompt television channels to suspend routine programs to show Khan’s speeches in their bid to draw top ratings.