Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan at 142 out of 180 in the free media index. (Representational)
For Pakistani journalists, there's only one channel that doesn't exercise the mute button when they report difficult stories that involve their government or the country's powerful military: YouTube.
The video-sharing social media giant is increasingly becoming the platform of choice for reporters facing one of the harshest media crackdowns in Pakistan's 72-year history.
One of them is Syed Talat Hussain, who quit Geo television — the country's largest broadcaster — after he was told his programs were too critical of the army and the government.
"Hunting down dissidents and demonizing critics as traitors was always part of the media landscape, but the scale, audacity and scope of it we see now remains unprecedented," said Syed Talat Hussain.
"Pakistan's media faces deep, structural constraints that translate into crippling censorship."
Once a vocal advocate of free media, Prime Minister Imran Khan is increasingly frustrated with criticism of his government and its handling of the economy. At the same time, the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its seven-decade history, is expanding its control over foreign and security policies and playing a greater role in economic strategy.
Under pressure over rising inflation and unemployment, the former cricket star has taken to calling any media critical of his policies the "mafia". Still, Mr Khan cannot afford to be distracted as he struggles to stabilize the economy after taking a $6 billion International Monetary Fund bailout last year and stave off Pakistan being placed on a global anti-money laundering agency blacklist.
Media freedom has always been challenged in the South Asian nation, where the military has repeatedly obstructed democratic rule and tried to muzzle dissenting voices. In the 1980s, journalists were jailed and beaten, while newspapers were censored during the Martial Law imposed by General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988. In 2007, the former president and General Pervez Musharraf, who ruled from 1999 to 2008, banned all television channels for a few weeks.
Mr Khan's army-backed government is intensifying the crackdown.
The curbs pushed Syed Talat Hussain to start his own YouTube channel where he now posts regular bulletins. The popular journalist has 103,000 subscribers to his channel and some 3.3 million Twitter followers.
So far Mr Khan's administration has made no move to censor YouTube content. Pakistan has briefly banned the video-sharing platform in the past, most notably in September 2012 after protests against "Innocence of Muslims," a film viewed as anti-Islam. Islamabad's neighbor and ally China bans access to Youtube and countries like Thailand and Malaysia have in the past either censored content or asked for it to be taken down.
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority in January banned Kashif Abbasi, an anchor at ARY News television channel, generally considered a pro-government news outlet, for three months after the regulator said his program sought to "debase and demean" the military.
An interview of the opposition leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari was taken off a few minutes after it was broadcast on Geo television in November. The reporter Hamid Mir blamed censorship by unidentified authorities. A week later, a televised interview of opposition leader Maryam Nawaz, who is also the daughter of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was taken off air midway without any reasons.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, a special assistant to the prime minister on information, said at a press conference the media regulator banned interviews with Asif Ali Zardari and Maryam Nawaz because convicts were not allowed on TV. Both Asif Ali Zardari and Maryam Nawaz are being tried for corruption in anti-graft courts.
Firdous Ashiq Awan didn't respond to calls from Bloomberg seeking comment.
"If you disagree with them, they take it as an attack on security interests," Muhammad Ziauddin, a 50-year-veteran journalist and former editor of The Express Tribune and Dawn newspapers said, referring to the army and the government. "The situation is very bad. There is self-censorship" as well. Mr Khan accuses Geo TV and Dawn, the country's most read English language newspaper, of being biased against his government.
Muhammad Ziauddin said his voice was muted at least 10 times during a television talk show because he was critical of the army's intervention in politics and the government.
The military denies any role in curbs on media, while the ministers say the measures are being taken by the media regulator without any interference from the authorities.
Still, Reporters Without Borders has lowered Pakistan's ranking by three points to 142 out of 180 in 2019, placing it behind Afghanistan, Myanmar and South Sudan in the free media index, while Amnesty International is concerned about human rights activists and students being targeted. Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the top media-representative body, and press clubs across the country are protesting against censorship.
But it is not just censorship that's worrying Pakistan's media.
Journalists continue to be at risk of threats, kidnapping and murder, while some have sought asylum in other countries. At least 33 journalists were killed in the past six years and so far, no one has been arrested or tried for their murders, according to Freedom Network, a Pakistan-based media rights watchdog.
At least three journalists spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they fear backlash from security agencies. They reported receiving WhatsApp messages from military officials on reporting guidelines. If they don't comply, they get angry calls, or visits by security officials, or a social media campaign will be generated that brands them as "traitors."
"In the past, there were some rules, clear red-lines and we knew who is on the other side," Muhammad Ziauddin said. "Now we don't know who is doing it."