Why was Steven Butler denied entry into Pakistan?

Published: October 19, 2019
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One wonders how the Pakistan government failed to anticipate the international backlash that would accompany such a move.

When it comes to press freedom, Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for dissenting journalists. It can be argued that since the era of General Ayub Khan, the press in Pakistan has remained hostage to the one-sided propaganda of the state. However, since Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is a democratic party and came to power through the ballot, it was expected that the media would be allowed to practice objective journalism and that freedom of expression would not be curbed. Contrary to expectations, the PTI regime has proven to be worse than previous dictatorships, essentially imposing an invisible ban on the journalists who are critical of its policies. A nation where the press is not free will always have its credibility as a democracy questioned by the world. The refusal to let Steven Butler enter the country will only lend further credence to these claims. 

Butler, who is the Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), was informed upon his arrival at the Lahore airport that his name had been placed on a ‘stop list.’ Butler was on his way to Pakistan to attend the Asma Jahangir Conference and had a valid visa, yet he was still denied entry into the country without any justification or explanation.

Given that news of this incident spread like wild-fire online, with many forums and associations denouncing the act, one wonders how the Pakistan government failed to anticipate the international backlash that would accompany such a move. This will only further weaken the already weak image Pakistan has when it comes to press freedom. The Butler fiasco is emblematic of the restrictions being faced by local journalists in Pakistan. The irony of all this is that the Asian branch of the CPJ often discusses how journalists are forcibly muzzled in Pakistan, and now the Pakistan government has only helped prove their point.

It is particularly shameful that Butler was not allowed to attend a conference titled Asma Jahangir Conference Roadmap for Human Rights in Pakistan. After all, a country that does not allow foreign journalists to participate in a discussion of the human rights conditions within its territory can never be taken seriously when pointing out human rights abuses in other countries. Since no reason has been offered as to why he was denied entry, and since the manner in which this entire affair was handled only led to it becoming increasingly discussed online, the government has foolishly shot itself in the foot. Furthermore, the international goodwill which had been amassed after the tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has also been damaged in one fell swoop.

The simple truth of the matter is that the foreign media cannot be silenced, so this move will only back-fire. Senior journalist Murtaza Solangi told me,

“The Imran Khan administration has authenticated the criticism by international media and human rights organisations that he runs an iron curtain administration that almost resembles North Korea. It is penny wise and pound foolish.”

Dissent and critical thought are vital components of a healthy democracy since it is those very voices that are able to show a mirror to the government. Denying entry to international journalists like Butler will only add to the list of problems the government is already facing. Now it will have the international media on its back too.

We cannot live under the illusion that the whole world is conspiring against us and that the foreign media and dissenting journalists in Pakistan are our enemies. Journalists are not public relations officers who can be hired to boost the image of state institutions whenever they need a helping hand. Not only should there be a transparent inquiry into this matter but an apology should also be issued to Butler by the government. Such incidents only damage the reputation and credibility of the country in the global community. Perhaps the greatest irony of all this is that not only has this move back-fired, but it has also been reported that Butler did ultimately manage to speak at the Asma Jahangir Conference  via Skype.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar

The writer is a columnist and writes for various English and Urdu publications. He tweets at @rjimad (twitter.com/rjimad)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.