Pakistan’s media sector faces multiple threats from numerous actors – from the military and intelligence agencies, higher judiciary, religious fanatics and militants, as well as from the government. However, it is important to stress that the freedom of press and the quality of journalistic practice are not only challenged by domestic but also by foreign sources, foremost China. Currently, the interaction between Islamabad and Beijing has reached an unprecedented peak with the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor/CPEC (Wolf, 2019). However, China’s rapidly expanding leverage (Ali, 2019, October 12) across all spheres of Pakistan’s state and society has raised questions regarding whether Pakistan is still the master in their own house (Wolf, 2020, March 18). The increasing number of occasions where Islamabad and Beijing are obviously not on the same page (Dorsey, 2018, October 29) justifies asking whether China is a master or friend of Pakistan – despite the shared official rhetoric of an ‘all-weather friendship between iron brothers’ (Wintour, 2018, August 3). In order to address this question, it would be of utmost importance that Pakistani decision-makers have the necessary political will and that the country possesses an independent and functional media sector that is free from undue interference. However, what we observe is that political rights, especially the freedom of expression, are rapidly vanishing. This hints at two phenomena simultaneously: a Chinese capture of Pakistani media and a clear complicity by Islamabad – both starting to gain momentum with the implementation of the CPEC. It is crucial to note that the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan (Khan, 2018, August 5) became a major concern – not only for local decision-makers but for the media as well. The latter was translated in the (temporarily) emerging of critical reporting regarding the CPEC, especially prior to the last general elections in 2018 which elected Imran Khan as Prime Minister (PM). However, during the last two years one could witness a persistent drop in critical reporting regarding CPEC developments within the domestic mainstream media. Interestingly, the latter trend was not yet reflected on social media platforms, which are still servingas the main platforms for Pakistani citizens to voice their grievances over the CPEC and Chinese activities in their country more generally. Against this backdrop, there are clear indications that not only Pakistani authorities – both civilian and military – but also Beijing are conducting increasing efforts to undermine independent reporting and silence critics on the negative ramifications of the CPEC in general and the growing posture of Beijing in Pakistan in particular. It is obvious that the current government of PM Khan is not only backed by but also works in close collaboration with the country’s main security sector agents (army and Inter-Services Intelligence/ISI) so as to undermine the political opposition and bring the media sector under complete state control.
Moreover, it appears that Pakistan’s reactionary establishment found here a common ground of mutual interests with the Chinese leadership. Concretely, this is true as regards the growing media collaboration and the digital components of the CPEC – which are part of the so called ‘Digital Silk Road’ of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Said ‘Digital Silk Road’ is providing the framework for a new dimension in the comprehensive, systematic suppression of dissent in Pakistan.
Camouflaged by the official goals to ‘disseminate factual information’(Khan, 2018, November 17) regarding the CPEC and ‘counter negative perceptions that are generated by vested interests and detractors in the region’ (Khan, 2018, November 17), both the Pakistani state and non-state actors (either on the directive of or encouraged by the state) took several practical steps to enhance the Sino-Pakistani media cooperation beyond advisable limits. Some examples should be outlined:
(1) The launch of the CPEC Media Forum: This event series plays a key role in bringing Pakistani and Chinese media outlets closer so as to project ‘the CPEC in its true perspective’ (APP, 2018, December 12). The large-scale annual forum brings political decision-makers and journalists together not only so as to strengthen information exchange between Pakistani and Chinese media but also to discuss and give the overall directives on how to report on the CPEC and BRI.
(2) The Rapid Response Information-Exchange Network (RRIN): The RRIN is a newly set-up system intended ‘to counter negative perceptions and stop “fake news” about China-Pakistan projects’ (Nadeem, 2019, September 11) and connect Pakistani and Chinese media (The News, 2018, November 18). It will be implemented and run by the China Economic Net (CEN), a Beijing-based online news organization, and the Pakistan China Institute (PIC), a pro-Beijing, Islamabad-based think tank. Not being able to prevent international, independent reporting on the shortcomings of the CPEC, this Sino-Pakistan joint strategy focuses on ‘facts-based construction of narratives’ and side-lining the ‘growing negativity’ (The News, 2018, November 18). In particular, reports sceptical of the economic benefits and/or critical about environmental costs should be replaced with a message linked to the profitability of the bilateral alliance (Nadeem, 2019, September 11).
(3) Institutional media collaboration: one must be aware that although remarkably vibrant, Pakistani media is hampered by severe structural curbs (in addition to destructive political influence and security challenges) such as lack in financial resources, educational centres and training for media workers, deteriorating general labour conditions, underpayment (Mezerra & Sial, 2010, October), among others. This situation makes the country’s media vulnerable to unwanted domestic and foreign influences. Moreover, it prepares the avenue for Chinese counterparts to gain leverage and exercise influence among Pakistan’s press and its journalists. As such, it does not come by surprise that institutional cooperation between Chinese and Pakistani media is intensifying. A remarkable example is the latest establishment of an Urdu service by the Chinese news agency Xinhua (Aamir, 2020, January 4) combined with new formal (MoU) collaborations of Xinhua with Pakistani domestic media outlets (CPECinfo.com, 2019, December 28). Moreover, Xinhua has agreed to provide (free for the first six months) Pakistani news agencies and media houses who entered these MoUs with access to its news services comprising photo, text, graphic, and video materials for the twin print and electronic media and in both English and Urdu languages (CPECinfo.com, 2019, December 29). This has far-reaching ramifications, since it will enable Beijing to disseminate its views in Urdu from within Pakistan and via the Pakistani media. Subsequently China will be in position to influence the opinion of the general public, which usually consults predominantly Urdu media (besides local language media).
(4) People-to-people connectivity measures: Besides the above mentioned CPEC Media Forum, numerous visits, conferences, workshops, and exchange programs are being organised to strengthen people-to-people bonds between leading Chinese and Pakistani journalists providing China additional leverage within the Pakistani media sector.
Not all these steps are dangerous; however, contextualised within the whole package of measures, the situation must be described as alarming and threatening independence and objective reporting by the Pakistani media. One needs to be aware that these institutional capacity building and people-to-people connectivity steps aim to manipulate and shape public opinion making, disempower and disfranchise private media houses (groups), and incapacitate journalists and other media workers in Pakistan. Islamabad is importing not only Chinese media services and subsequently Chinese views and interpretations of both international and domestic affairs but also Chinese instruments for the surveillance and suppression of the freedom of expression and press freedom. We are currently observing the transformation of the Pakistani media sector into a tool of Chinese state propaganda – along the operational lines of the totally state-controlled Chinese media sector. In sum, Beijing is creating an Orwellian state within Pakistan and Islamabad shows its accepting approval for what is falsely interpreted as ‘national interests’ but in fact means the truncation of democracy.
Chinese News Agency Xinhua offers its ‘All Media Services’ to Pakistani counterparts. (2019, December 29). CPECinfo.com. blog. Pakistan-China Institute & China Radio International.
Pakistan, China to counter all challenges to CPEC: Mushahid. (2018, November 18). The News International.
Xinhua and Nawa-i-Waqt news agencies sign MoU to enhance cooperation in media affairs. (2019, December 28).
Aamir, A. (2020, January 4). Xinhua begins Pakistan language service to push Belt and Road. Nikkei Asian Review.
Ali, G. (2019, October 12). China remains Pakistan’s key partner. East Asia Forum.
APP (2018, December 12). China, Pakistan media collaboration stressed. The Express Tribune.
Dorsey, J. M. (2018, October 29). Imran Khan CPEC Diplomacy: Remodelling Trade Politics between Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.
Freedom House (2020). Freedom in the World 2020. Country report Pakistan. https://freedomhouse.org/country/pakistan/freedom-world/2020
Khan, T. (2018, November 17). CPEC Media Forum launches network to counter fake news. Daily Times.
Khan, R. (2018, August 5). China’s growing influence in South Asia.
Mezzera, M., & Sial, S. (2010, October). Media and Governance in Pakistan: A controversial yet essential relationship. The Initiative for Peacebuilding (IfP). The Hague: Clingendael Institute. https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/20101109_CRU_publicatie_mmezzera.pdf
Nadeem, M. (2019, September 11). China boosts soft power in Pakistan via film and social media. Reuters.
RSF (2020). 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Country report Pakistan. Reporter Without Borders (RSF).
Wintour, P. (2018, August 3). ‘All-weather friendship’: but is Pakistan relying too heavily on China?
Wolf, S. O. (2020, March 18). CPEC and the future of China–Pakistan ties. East Asia Forum.
Wolf, S. O. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. Concept, Context and Assessment (Cham: Springer).
 Social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook are hindering the control of freedom of expression in Pakistan. In order to keep dissent on these platforms in check, the country’s authorities enacted new regulations in early 2020, called ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’.