A new civil rights movement in Pakistan is galvanizing a rapidly growing following among the country’s ethnic Pashtun minority by doing the nearly unthinkable: openly accusing the powerful and famous Pakistani military establishment of being “oppressors” who kill or whisk away Pashtuns by the thousands.
Counting hundreds of thousands of supporters in just its third month, the Pashtun movement has wielded the pictures and names of dead family members — along with the chant “What kind of freedom is this?” — as an indictment of unchecked military authority. From its start, the movement has been haunted by the question of how long the security forces would tolerate it before cracking down.
That time may be coming, many fear.
Despite its biggest rally yet, a demonstration of tens of thousands in the northern city of Peshawar on April 8, the movement has labored under an only rarely interrupted media blackout. Interviews with editors and reporters at several outlets detailed pressure to avoid covering the Pashtun movement as an unmistakable sign that both the demonstrators and the press are facing a new level of threat from the military.
The country’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, ominously suggested at a public event last week that “engineered protests” threatened to reverse counterterrorism efforts by the military in recent years.
That military campaign, centered on operations against the Pakistani Taliban and some other militants in the country’s northwestern region — where most of the country’s Pashtuns live — has been credited with a drastic drop in terrorist attacks. It has greatly bolstered the military’s popularity, and tipped the balance of authority over the country’s institutions toward the army.
It has also led to the feeling that many of the country’s Pashtun population centers have been under functional occupation by the security forces. Using an alternative system of military counterterrorism courts along with an extensive network of covert jails, security and intelligence officers wield life or death power — often instantly — over the Pakistani region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a leftover from the British colonial system.
The new Pashtun rights movement — which is known by the initials P.T.M., from words that translate as Pashtun Protection Movement — is the product of years of outrage over the security forces’ power. It caught spark after the killing of a small group of Pashtun men, including an aspiring model named Naqeebullah Mehsud who was originally from the tribal areas, by police officers in Karachi in January. The officers have been accused of staging a fake shootout to cover up an extrajudicial killing spree.
Under the leadership of a young activist, Manzoor Pashteen, 26, the P.T.M. has evoked deep emotion from Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as overseas.
Mr. Pashteen and his allies say that Pashtuns, who make up about 15 percent of Pakistan’s population of some 204 million, have endured countless human rights violations, from disappearances to forced evictions. At rallies, women clutch pictures of sons they say were hauled off by security officials, never to be seen again.
Mr. Pashteen says that from the start, the movement has faced hostility from the military and its agencies, and is increasingly the subject of propaganda and social media campaigns engineered by supporters of the security forces.
“We’ve spent these two months enduring accusation after accusation, that we’re foreign agents and working on behalf of some other group,” he said Monday in an interview. “All we can do is try to take the moral high ground. We know our first mistake will be our last.”
Another leader of the movement, Mohsin Dawar, was equally stark about the risks of open protest against the military: “Speaking about the army like this in Pakistan is suicide.”
At the protest in Peshawar on April 8, Mr. Pashteen condemned the military and its agents as “oppressors” and called for the end of curfews and army checkpoints in the tribal areas.
Though the demonstration drew tens of thousands of Pashtun marchers from all over the country, its coverage on local television news media was next to absent, and only a smattering of Pakistani newspapers covered the event.
Then, three columns about the movement that were published by The News International, one of Pakistan’s biggest English-language news outlets, disappeared Sunday from its website not long after being posted.
Interviews with newspaper editors and writers — many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of the military’s reaction — portrayed an atmosphere in which reporting on the Pashtun movement was widely being seen as a red line for the country’s security establishment.
The journalists described the main factors in keeping the movement out of the news as a combination of direct warnings from military officials or their go-betweens and self-censorship in order to avoid being shut down.
In recent weeks, the country’s biggest news channel, Geo TV, has been run off the air by cable operators who are broadly seen here as under threat from a military establishment that has increasingly been flexing its authority over civilian institutions.
“A lot of this is self-censorship, but you can’t ask individual journalists to be crusaders for free expression,” said Saroop Ijaz, a representative for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “Now that the state has demonstrated its power against Geo, you have a chilling effect. They’ve set a precedent for blatant censorship.”
Khan Zaman Kakar, an anthropologist and P.T.M. activist, was among those whose column was abruptly removed from The News International. “My column went to print in the Sunday paper, then disappeared from the site around midday,” he said. “Then I received a call from my editor saying it wasn’t a technical issue.”
Mr. Kakar said he could read between the lines and wasn’t surprised that his column was censored: “I knew when I submitted it that it touches an issue the state does not want.”
Many journalists described coming under immense pressure to keep the Pashtun movement out of the headlines.
“What’s happening now is far more detailed and micromanaged as compared with the past,” said Talat Hussein, a senior broadcast journalist and talk-show host. “It makes the current crackdown deadly and disturbing,” he added, because there are no avenues for recourse.
Mr. Dawar, one of the movement’s lead activists, said the censorship was sad, but not surprising. “We were actually surprised that the columns ran in the first place,” he said. “Most publications are reluctant to cover any issues against the military.”
He said social media had allowed the movement to gain supporters, as well as sympathetic international audiences. “Electronic media, print media — we don’t need them. The entire world is seeing it, and seeing it live,” Mr. Dawar said.
The movement’s founders are counting on the idea that the world is watching as they continue to defy the military.
“We have no option but to continue,” Mr. Pashteen said. “We are on the last possible option.”