There is only one channel for Pakistani journalists who do not press the mute button when reporting on difficult stories involving their government or the country's powerful military: YouTube.
The video-sharing social media giant is increasingly becoming the preferred platform for reporters facing one of the toughest media attacks in Pakistan's 72-year history.
One of them is Syed Talat Hussain, who left Geo-TV – the country's largest broadcaster – after being told that his programs were too critical of the army and the government.
"The hunt for dissidents and the demonization of critics as traitors has always been part of the media landscape, but the scale, audacity and scale we are seeing now are unprecedented," said Syed Talat Hussain.
"Pakistan's media are exposed to deep structural constraints that are reflected in crippling censorship."
Prime Minister Imran Khan, once an advocate of the free media, is increasingly frustrated with criticism of his government and how it deals with the economy. At the same time, the powerful military that has ruled Pakistan for about half of its seven decades of history is expanding its control over foreign and security policy and playing a greater role in economic strategy.
Under the pressure of rising inflation and unemployment, the former cricket star has described all media criticizing his policies as "mafia". Even so, Mr. Khan cannot afford to be distracted because last year he struggled to stabilize the economy following a $ 6 billion rescue package for the International Monetary Fund and prevented Pakistan from being blacklisted on the global Anti-money laundering agencies to be set.
Media freedom has always been questioned in the South Asian nation, where the military has repeatedly hindered democratic rule and tried to suppress dissenting voices. Journalists were arrested and beaten in the 1980s, while newspapers were censored during General Zia-ul-Haq's 1977-1988 martial law. In 2007 the former President and General Pervez Musharraf, who ruled all television channels for a few weeks from 1999 to 2008, was banned.
The army-backed government of Mr. Khan tightened the process.
The curbs urged Syed Talat Hussain to start his own YouTube channel, on which he now regularly publishes bulletins. The popular journalist has 103,000 subscribers to his channel and around 3.3 million Twitter followers.
So far, Mr. Khan's government has taken no steps to censor YouTube content. Pakistan has briefly banned the video sharing platform in the past, particularly in September 2012 following protests against "Innocence of Muslims", a film that is viewed as anti-Islam. Islamabad's neighbor and ally China prohibits access to YouTube, and countries like Thailand and Malaysia have either censored content in the past or asked for it to be removed.
Pakistan's electronic media regulator in January banned Kashif Abbasi, a broadcaster for ARY News, which is widely regarded as a pro-government news agency, three months after the regulator said its program tried to "devalue and belittle" the military.
An interview with opposition leader and former president Asif Ali Zardari was recorded a few minutes after being broadcast on geo-television in November. The reporter Hamid Mir blamed the censorship by unidentified authorities. A week later, a television interview of opposition leader Maryam Nawaz, who is also the daughter of triple Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was taken halfway out of the air for no reason.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, a special assistant to the prime minister for information, said at a press conference that media supervision had banned interviews with Asif Ali Zardari and Maryam Nawaz because convicts are not allowed on TV. Both Asif Ali Zardari and Maryam Nawaz are being tried for corruption in anti-corruption courts.
Firdous Ashiq Awan did not answer calls from Bloomberg to receive a comment.
"If you disagree with them, they take it as an attack on security interests," said Muhammad Ziauddin, a 50-year-old journalist and former editor of The Express Tribune and Dawn newspapers, referring to the army and government. "The situation is very bad. There is also self-censorship". 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 had been muted at least ten times during a television talk show for criticizing the army's intervention in politics and government.
The military denies any role in curbing the media, while ministers say the measures will be taken by the media regulator without interference from the authorities.
Nonetheless, Reporters Without Borders lowered Pakistan's ranking by three points to 142 out of 180 points in 2019, placing it behind Afghanistan, Myanmar and South Sudan in the free media index, while Amnesty International is concerned that human rights defenders and students are being targeted . The Pakistani Union of Journalists, the top media representatives and press clubs across the country are protesting the censorship.
But it is not only censorship that worries the Pakistani media.
Journalists continue to face threats, kidnapping and murder, while some have applied for asylum in other countries. At least 33 journalists have been killed in the past six years, and according to Freedom Network, a Pakistani-based watchdog for media rights, no one has been arrested or brought to justice for their murders.
At least three journalists spoke on condition of anonymity and said they fear a backlash from the security authorities. They reported having received WhatsApp messages from military officials on reporting guidelines. If they fail to do so, they receive angry calls or visits from security officials, or a social media campaign is generated that identifies them as "traitors".
"In the past there were some rules, clear red lines and we knew who was on the other side," said Muhammad Ziauddin. "Now we don't know who is doing it."