The distribution of Pakistan’s oldest newspaper Dawn has been disrupted since it published an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The English-language daily’s distribution is being disrupted in many regions of the Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, besides all military cantonments since May 15. In the interview, which was published on May 12, Sharif had criticised his country for letting militant groups cross the border and commit attacks like the one in Mumbai in November 2008. It reportedly displeased the Pakistani military. Sharif had also said it was unacceptable that militant organisations were active in Pakistan and that the country had isolated itself internationally.

The National Security Committee, Pakistan’s top civil-military body, subsequently condemned the “fallacious” statement and termed Sharif’s remarks as “incorrect and misleading”. However, Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), defended his statement, saying the Indian media had “grossly misinterpreted” it. On May 17, the Lahore High Court dismissed a petition seeking treason charges against Sharif for these remarks.

The Press Council of Pakistan told Dawn’s editor that it has breached the ethical code of practice. Its content “may bring into contempt Pakistan or its people or tends to undermine its sovereignty or integrity as an independent country”, the council said.

Pakistan is ranked 139 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

Reporters Without Borders said the unwarranted blocking of distribution has shown that the military wants to maintain its grip on news in Pakistan. “It is clear that the military high command does not want to allow a democratic debate in the months preceding a general election,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We call on the authorities to stop interfering in the dissemination of independent media and to restore distribution of Dawn throughout Pakistan.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also expressed concern over the seemingly arbitrary curbs placed on Dawn and urged authorities to interfere with the media’s rights.

Not a first

This follows reports in April that Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s major television networks, had gone off the air in 80% of the country. It was being seen as the military’s move to assert its control over the media and other civilian institutions.

The censorship came at a time when tensions between the military and the civilian government, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party, are high. Sharif, who was ousted from office in 2017, is on trial over corruption charges. He has accused the military and the judiciary of working together to remove him. Geo News’ coverage was sympathetic to Sharif and critical of his political rival Imran Khan.

The news channel may have also irked the military by its critical coverage of Pakistan’s placement on a terror financing watch list, and its criticism of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s positions on domestic and foreign policy matters.