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Pakistan closes Radio Free Europe’s Islamabad bureau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 3:44am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 3:44am

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said Pakistani authorities closed the Islamabad bureau of its Pashto-language Radio Mashaal on Friday after Pakistan’s intelligence agency accused it of airing programmes “against the interest of Pakistan”.

Pakistan’s spy agency, known by the acronym ISI, also accused the US- funded broadcaster of operating “in line with [a] hostile intelligence agency’s agenda”, without naming the agency, according to the RFE/RL site.

“We’re not aware of any Mashaal coverage that generated a particular government reaction in recent days,” RFE/RL President Tom Kent said. “We had heard from government agents [on] Wednesday and Thursday that the office might be shut down. No specific reason was given.”

The closure of Radio Mashaal comes amid tense relations between the United States and Pakistan. Washington has suspended millions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan accusing Islamabad of harbouring insurgents killing US troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has denied the charge and accused the US of making Pakistan a scapegoat for their failure to bring peace to the war-torn nation after 16 years of trying.

There was no immediate comment from Pakistan about the closure.

Pakistan accused Radio Mashaal of “portraying Pakistan [as] a hub of terrorism and safe haven for different militant groups”, according to the closure order posted on the RFE/RL site.

The Committee to Protect Journalism (CPJ) responded swiftly to condemn the closure.

“The order to close Radio Mashaal is a draconian move by Pakistani authorities and a direct threat to press freedom,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator. “Radio Mashaal is an important source of information and should be allowed to continue operating without delay.”

Friday’s order issued to Radio Mashaal accused the broadcaster of inciting Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns who dominate in the country’s two provinces that border Afghanistan “against the state and its institutions”. The order said the bureau was being closed because of a recommendation from the country’s spy agency.

“It’s hard to know precisely what prompted the order,” said Butler. “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 said the closure might also be retaliation for President Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve 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.”