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Radio Free Europe says Pakistan closes its bureau

January 19, 2018

ISLAMABAD (AP) — 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 programs “against the interest of Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s spy agency, known by the acronym ISI, also accused the U.S.- 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 in an email to The Associated Press. “We had heard from government agents 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 harboring insurgents killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has denied the charge and accused the U.S. 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 (a) 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 program coordinator. “Radio Mashaal is an important source of information and should be allowed to continue operating without delay.”

Journalists and bloggers in Pakistan have come under increasing pressure in recent months.

Last week Taha Siddiqui, a reporter for the World is One News, a 24-hour New-Delhi based news channel, was attacked by several gunmen who tried to kidnap him as he travelled to the airport in the Pakistan capital. Siddiqui, who also reports for the Paris-based France 24 television news channel, said he feared the attempted kidnapping was payback for his critical analysis of Pakistan’s military.

Last May, Siddiqui received threatening calls from the counter-terrorism wing of the Federal Investigation Agency, ordering him to come in for questioning. Siddiqui said he was told by the FIA that he was being investigated because of his critical stories about the military.

Last year six bloggers and social activists, who had also been critical of the military, disappeared for several weeks. Five were freed and all said they had been held by the country’s powerful intelligence agencies and were tortured. They have all fled the country. The sixth is still missing.

Meanwhile 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 CPJ’s Butler in an email to the AP. “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.”

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