A top journalism watchdog group has condemned Pakistan's closure of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal office in Islamabad, calling it a "direct threat to press freedom" in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Interior Ministry on January 19 ordered the closure after Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency accused the private, U.S.-government-funded broadcaster of airing programs “against the interest of Pakistan” and “in line with [a] hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.”
"The order to close Radio Mashaal is a draconian move by Pakistani authorities and a direct threat to press freedom," said Steven Butler, the Committee to Protect Journalist's Asia program coordinator.
"Radio Mashaal is an important source of information and should be allowed to continue operating without delay," he said.
Butler in an e-mail to the Associated Press said the move is part of a pattern of increasing pressure on journalists in Pakistan.
"It's hard to know precisely what prompted the order," he told AP. "However, it is certainly only the latest move from the military that puts pressure on the media to stay away from sensitive issues, including criticism of the military itself."
Butler told AP that the closure might also be retaliation for U.S. President Donald Trump's New Year's Day tweet accusing Pakistan of "lies and deceit."
"It also comes just after the Trump administration cut off military aid to Pakistan and could possibly be a kind of retaliation," said Butler. "It does not bode well for press freedom inside the country."
Trump on January 1 accused Pakistan of "lies and deceit" and said the United States would suspend up to $1.9 billion a year in military aid until Islamabad moves decisively against Afghan Taliban fighters and Haqqani network militants who he said have found safe haven within Pakistan's borders.
Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, responded to Trump's criticism on January 12, saying that Pakistan felt “betrayed” by the U.S. accusation that it is not doing enough to fight terrorism and by Washington’s decision to suspend military aid for Islamabad.
Pakistan's order against Radio Mashaal accused the news outlet of “portraying Pakistan [as] a hub of terrorism and [a] safe haven for different militant groups.”
It said Radio Mashaal programming presented Pakistan as a “failed state in terms of providing security to its people,” in particular minorities and ethnic Pashtuns.
It said Radio Mashaal showed ethnic Pashtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Balochistan Province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border with Afghanistan as “disenchanted with the state.”
It also accused the broadcaster of “distorting facts [to] incite the target population against the state and its institutions.”
Pakistani Interior Ministry officers went to the broadcaster’s Islamabad bureau on January 19 and met with the bureau chief and administrator to discuss the closure order.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said he was “extraordinarily concerned by the closure” and was “urgently seeking more information about the Pakistani authorities’ intentions.”
Kent said Radio Mashaal, which broadcasts from Prague and has both radio and digital operations, is a “private news organization supported by the U.S. Congress with no connection to the intelligence agencies of any country.”
“Radio Mashaal is an essential source of reliable, balanced information for our Pakistani audience,” Kent said. “We hope this situation will be resolved without delay.”
In emphasizing that "Radio Mashaal serves no intelligence agency or government," Kent said “our reporters are Pakistani citizens who are dedicated to their country and live and raise families in the villages in which they report."
"We demand that their safety be ensured, and that they be permitted to resume their work without fear or delay,” Kent said.
With reporting by AP