ISLAMABAD — The power struggle between Pakistan’s government and its ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, has escalated dramatically, with authorities targeting the pro-Khan press, and officials charging that India, Pakistan’s archrival, is among those supporting his surging comeback campaign.
A senior aide to Khan, arrested and imprisoned for making anti-military comments on a TV talk show two weeks ago, was transferred Wednesday to a hospital after his lawyers said he had been tortured in custody. The popular cable channel where he spoke, ARY News, has been forced off the air, and two of its news anchors have fled the country. Other journalists say they have been harassed and threatened.
The crackdown has come at a contentious and uncertain moment for the country and its leaders. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who took office in April, has made little progress in addressing the dire economic crisis that sent consumer prices skyrocketing. Khan, by contrast, has gained momentum in local elections and continues to lead large, boisterous rallies where he castigates the government.
The armed forces, which have pledged to stay out of the political feuding, are caught in the middle. The current army chief — widely considered the most powerful person in Pakistan — is due to retire in three months, and the replacement process has sparked a swirl of rumors and criticism. The Army’s image has also come under attack, especially among Khan supporters on social media.
Some made snide comments online about the fatal crash of a military helicopter Aug. 1 as it was providing humanitarian aid to a flood-ravaged region. The posts provoked a rare, emotional response from military officials, who said the commenters had dishonored the victims and caused “anguish and distress” to their families.
The comments by Khan’s aide Shahbaz Gill on ARY, the most openly pro-Khan TV station, struck an especially raw nerve. In an indirect challenge to military discipline, he exhorted Pakistan’s military personnel to follow their conscience rather than orders. “When you receive an order, you need to know your values and you have to be on the right side,” he said. “You are not a madman or an animal.”
The government response was swift. The Interior Ministry withdrew ARY’s security clearance, and the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority revoked its operating license, accusing the station of “false, hateful, and seditious content.” Officials then cut off its broadcast signal, silencing one of Pakistan’s most popular news channels. A senior government official, Planning Minister Ehsan Iqbal, said Khan was “conspiring to divide” Pakistan’s army.
Gill was detained for days until a judge ordered him to be transferred to a hospital for medical reasons. Finally, he was carried out on a stretcher after a dramatic three-hour standoff outside the prison gates between two police departments that both claimed jurisdiction. His lawyer, Salman Safdar, said he had been tortured “in his private parts” while in custody, a claim that Pakistan’s defense minister has denied.
A senior vice president at ARY was arrested at home and charged with sedition, as were several other staffers. One of the two anchors that fled the country, Sabir Shakir, tweeted that he had left “not under duress but to save the institution I love and my colleagues from any harm.”
Both Pakistani and international media organizations condemned the treatment of Gill and ARY. Dawn newspaper, an influential English-language daily, warned that the crackdown “could set a dangerous precedent” and said that by overreacting, the government had “given ammunition” to Khan and his party.
“Let’s not be fooled,” said Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific director for Reporters Without Borders. Although the Sharif government must be held accountable, he said, “it is the military that intervenes behind the scenes to bring Pakistan’s journalists to heel. … The rule of law’s credibility is at stake.”
The crackdown has intensified as Khan’s political strength has grown. Although he was once seen as close to the military establishment, analysts say the former cricket star is now seen by the armed forces as an unreliable populist, while Sharif and his government are viewed as more cooperative members of the Pakistani establishment.
“The battle lines have been drawn, and the press is being squeezed in between,” said Ayaz Amir, a veteran newspaper columnist and former liberal legislator. He has also faced intimidation for outspoken public comments; in July he said he was pulled from his car and beaten by unknown assailants after giving a speech in Lahore.
“There is no coherent policy against the media, but sensitivities have grown,” Amir said. “The taboo now is Imran Khan. If you mention or praise him, you are suspect.”
On Saturday, Sharif and Khan staged contrasting events to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day. Sharif addressed the nation on TV, dressed in a sober green suit and tie, and invited Khan to join him in finding a path to economic recovery.
Khan led a raucous, late-night rally in a crowded hockey stadium, where he touted a new path to “real freedom” and denounced a “conspiracy” by the Sharif government to force him out of politics by charging him with illegally raising funds from foreign sources, including India.
In a tweet on Sunday, Khan warned the nation of “an unprecedented crackdown campaign by the imported government and state machinery” against journalists and media outlets aligned with his party. “If we allow these terror tactics to succeed, we will be returning to the dark days of dictatorship,” he said.
The government’s defense minister, Khawaja Asif, denounced the “negative” social media campaign against the armed forces as a “joint project” and a “smear campaign” by Khan’s party and the Indian government against the Pakistani army.
Asif said that 18 social media accounts supporting Khan had been found in India and that the ex-premier is working to “safeguard and advance” the interests of India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan and remains its main enemy.