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Media watchdogs in Pakistan concerned over banning of US-funded radio

ISLAMABAD: Media Watchdogs in Pakistan express concern over the closure of US Congress-funded RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal bureau office in Islamabad on the basis of a report by the main spy agency of Pakistan, ISI.
“This is an overreaction and will hurt Pakistan’s image abroad,” Iqbal Khattak, Reporters Sans Frontières’ representative in Pakistan, told Arab News.
He said the government should have presented cogent evidence against Radio Mashaal’s management and the staff if they were really involved in any anti-Pakistan activities.
“The action against the radio seems to be taken on mere analysis of intelligence agency’s reports,” he said, “this knee-jerk reaction is totally unacceptable to the journalist community.”
Pakistani authorities on Friday sealed the office of Pashto-language Radio Mashaal in Islamabad after the country’s premier spy agency ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) said that its programs “are found against the interests of Pakistan and are in line with a hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.”
State Minister for Interior Tallal Chaudhry told Arab News: “We do not have anything to add more than what is in the notification issued on Friday.”
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), however, says the operation of the radio does not fall under its jurisdiction as it was being operated from Czech Republic using shortwave radio frequencies, but they are finding ways to regulate it.
“We have taken up the issue with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to devise a strategy to regulate all shortwave radio stations being operated from outside Pakistan,” said Maham Ali Khan, a spokesperson for PEMRA. “At the moment, we are providing technical assistance to the Interior Ministry to shut down transmission of Radio Mashaal,” she said.
Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has also rejected the government’s decision to ban the transmission of Radio Mashaal through “verbal allegations.”
PFUJ President Afzal Butt told Arab News: “It is unfortunate the government has sealed the office of the radio without providing any evidence for its allegations.”
He said: “Cracking down on journalists and media houses will damage Pakistan’s image in the international community. Butt urged the Interior Ministry to take the matter to the court instead of abruptly shutting down the radio’s operations.
On the other hand, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent also refuted the Interior Ministry’s allegations, saying “Radio 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 in which they report.” He said: “We demand that their safety be ensured, and that they be permitted to resume their work without fear or delay.”
Radio Mashaal, which broadcasts from Prague and has both radio and digital operations, is a “private news organization supported by the US Congress with no connection to the intelligence agencies of any country,” he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has also urged Pakistani authorities to “immediately reverse the order issued to close the Islamabad bureau of Radio Mashaal.” “Radio Mashaal is an important source of information in Pakistan and should be allowed to continue operating in the country without further harassment from the government,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator, said from Washington. The move comes at a time when relations between Pakistan and the US have frayed following President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet wherein he slammed Pakistan for “lies and deceit.” Officials from both sides are now negotiating secretly as well as publicly to restore the relations.
Ayaz Wazir, Pakistan’s former ambassador, says that closure of Radio Mashaal will not affect US-Pakistani relations as Islamabad has taken action against it “to protect its national interest.”
“The relations among the countries are always based on mutual respect and we hope American authorities too will not back the Radio Mashaal’s management if they are involved in anti-Pakistan activities,” he said.
Wazir, however, acknowledged that freedom of speech and freedom of press are sensitive issues and Pakistan should share the evidence against Radio Mashaal with the international community to back its decision of the closure.
Dr. Mohammed Faisal, a spokesman for Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Arab News: “I am not aware about closure of the radio but Pak-US relationship is not affected by any single development.”
The US launched Radio Mashaal in January 2010 from the Czech Republic for the Pashto-speaking people in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s border regions terming it “an attempt to help undermine militants there.”
The US has another Pashto-language station, Radio “Deewa,” which also focuses on Pashtun areas in Pakistan.