The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump must press Imran Khan on Pakistan’s crackdown on press freedom

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a session of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, June 14. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

PRESIDENT TRUMP will host Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House on Monday, less than a week after Pakistani journalists staged nationwide protests to denounce an accelerating crackdown on press freedoms. It’s a subject Mr. Trump ought to bring up.

With an economic crisis roiling the country, Mr. Khan’s elected government and the military that stands behind it have grown intolerant of dissenting voices. Press criticism of the army, the courts and the government has been muffled by systematic intimidation. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists , the decline in outright killings of journalists “masks [a] decline in press freedom.”

In the past month alone, three television channels were taken off the air after broadcasting a live speech by opposition leader Maryam Nawaz. On July 11, the government terminated a Hum TV interview with Ms. Nawaz just minutes after it began. The same thing happened when Geo News tried to broadcast an interview with former president Asif Ali Zardari on July 1.

The crackdown escalated shortly after Mr. Khan took office. In October 2018, just two months into his term, prominent Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida was charged with treason after he published an interview with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif that was critical of the Pakistani military. Meanwhile, the government slashed its advertising budget, depriving many media outlets of revenue they depend on and forcing the layoffs of hundreds of journalists.

Mr. Khan’s election in a vote that was judged free and fair, and the peaceful transition from Mr. Sharif’s government, raised hopes that Pakistan’s chronically fragile democracy was gaining strength despite the continued role of the military as the country’s ultimate power. But where press freedom falters, so does democracy. And so far in the Khan administration, media freedom is considerably more attenuated than it had been under previous elected governments.

Even Mr. Khan’s party recognizes this relationship, though with a poisonous caveat: “Freedom of Expression is a beauty of Democracy. Expressing Enemy’s Stance is Not Freedom of speech but treason against its people,” read a tweet by the Tehreek-e-Insaf party on July 16. That sort of rhetoric — the government has also called journalists “anti-state” — will only add chill to an already repressive atmosphere.

Mr. Trump’s repeated condemnations of U.S. media don’t leave much hope that he will step up for free expression in Pakistan. But he or his aides ought to be pressing the subject with Mr. Khan. There’s not much chance that chronically fraught U.S.-Pakistani relations can improve unless civilian-led democracy grows stronger in Islamabad. And for now, it is headed in the wrong direction.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Press freedom is under siege — and the U.S. is part of the problem

Mohsin Dawar: Why Pashtuns in Pakistan are rising up

Jason Rezaian: New report paints a grim picture of global press freedom

Letters to the Editor: Freedom of the press has limits

Jason Rezaian: On press freedom, this pope might be infallible