Express Tribune’s Blank Page: Censorship or Protest?

Mar 24th, 2014 | By | Category: Censorship, Express Tribune

Readers of Express Tribune were greeted with an unusual sight last week: A large blank space on the front page.

Express Tribune blank space

What was missing was a report, first published by The New York Times that accuses former DG-ISI Gen Shuja Pasha and an independent section of ISI of having either helped hide Osama bin Laden or, at the very least, having known he was in Pakistan the whole time.  The piece, by British journalist Carlotta Gall, makes serious accusations of aiding and abetting terrorism by national agencies. When the piece was first published, it was immediately dismissed by all and sundry, even before ISPR had a chance to issue a statement terming the report as ‘baseless and ridiculous‘.

Regardless of official denials and any doubts about the report’s authenticity, most newspapers did report on the piece – it was simply too controversial to ignore completely. These reports consisted largely of theories about why the report could not be trusted. One newspaper, however, was in a peculiar position. Express Tribune has an agreement to be the international distributor of New York Times content in Pakistan. In this role, they were responsible for printing the controversial piece and distributing with regular content. As seen above, though, the newspaper instead chose to replace it with a blank space. This decision has resulted in accusations of censorship against Express Tribune, but actually these accusations may be missing the point.

Much attention has been given to Express Tribune’s recent decision to avoid writing against ‘militant organisations and its allies‘ among other controversial topics. The decision was made in response to a series of attacks against Express Tribune offices by terrorist groups. But it should be remembered that jihadi militants were not the first or the only ones to attack journalists whose reporting they did not appreciate. In 2010, investigative reporter Umar Cheema was kidnapped and tortured. Cheema, however, lived to tell his tale. Saleem Shahzad was not so lucky.

When the New York Times published Carlotta gall’s report about the ISI knowing about Osama bin Laden, Express Tribune found itself faced with a difficult decision. It could publish the piece and not only run afoul of its policy against writing against terrorism, but also find itself on the wrong side of both militants and security agencies. This is where most media groups would replace the report with one of two things: Either a piece that criticises the report, or something that doesn’t mention it at all. Express Tribune did something else. They published nothing.

As noted above, this has been heavily criticised as self-censorship. But it can also be considered as part of a long tradition of journalistic protest against censorship also. In the 1980s, South African newspapers protested official censorship by including blank spaces where controversial information was supposed to appear. Similar protests have appeared in Chinese newspapers and Egyptian newspapers also.

Actually, the New York Times complaint about censorship may actually provide a clue:

Though the article appeared to have been excised from all copies of the newspaper distributed in Pakistan, the story seemed to be available to Pakistani readers online.

By publishing a large blank space, Express Tribune may have withheld the controversial information, but they also drew attention to the fact that there was something that someone powerful didn’t want people to read. And the fact that it is available on the internet means that readers, who are now alerted that there’s something what they’re not supposed to know about, can still read it.

So did  Express Tribune censor the piece? Or did they protest the increasingly narrow window of what we’re allowed to talk about? It’s entirely possible that they did both.

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