Pakistani authorities closed Friday on the offices of a US government-funded radio station whose broadcasts were “against the interests of Pakistan”, another blow to relations with the United States.
The Pakistani Interior Ministry said that Radio Mashaal portrayed the country as a “center of terrorism” and “a failed state” that could provide no security for its people, especially for religious minorities and long-term refugees from Afghanistan.
The ministry said it shut down the organization’s Islamabad office following recommendations from Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani military’s mighty espionage agency, which was heavily criticized by President Trump.
The Trump administration said this month that the US would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance, as Pakistan is unable to act on militant groups across the border to attack US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Trump has repeatedly called on Pakistan to Twitter and accused the protracted US ally, which has accepted since 2002, 33 billion US dollars to combat terrorism of “lies and deceptions”.
Pakistani officials said that the decision to close Radio Mashaal was not a response to Trump, but the result of long-standing concerns over its content. A letter from the Home Office says the station’s broadcasts are “in line with the agenda of a hostile intelligence service” – a reference to Afghanistan, whose leaders accuse Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and other insurgent groups against the government of Kabul.
Radio Mashaal, broadcasting on the radio and online in the Pashto language, broadcasts political and social coverage and is particularly popular in the marginalized northwestern tribal areas along the Afghan border. The region is home to a large population of mainly Pashtun refugees, who fled a decade-long conflict in Afghanistan but are severely restricted by the Pakistani government.
The broadcaster is part of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, a congress-funded non-profit broadcasting organization based in Prague, Czech Republic. Launched during the Cold War as an alternative to pro-Soviet propaganda, the organization airs programs in 23 countries with press restrictions, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
In a story on his website, Radio Free Europe president Thomas Kent said he was “extremely worried about the closure” and “looking for more information on the intentions of the Pakistani authorities.”
Kent described Radio Mashaal as a “private news organization sponsored by the US Congress and unconnected to the intelligence services of any country”, saying he hopes “the situation will be resolved without delay”.
Islamist parties in Pakistan accused the station – and other US-funded news agencies, including Voice of America – of often Pakistani prejudice. Last November, demonstrators protested Radio Mashaal’s coverage of planned administrative reforms that would give greater rights to tribal people.
Radio Maschaal claims 1.2 million Facebook fans and works with 24 employees in Prague and three in Pakistan. It was not immediately clear what impact the closure would have on the broadcasting capability of Radio Mashaal in Pakistan. Radio Free Europe officials did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
The move comes weeks after Pakistan has commissioned more than 20 international charities to close their operations in the country without offering an explanation for the decision. Activists have dismissed this move as an attack on freedom of speech and humanitarian work.
Pakistan has also tried to expel more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees and see them as an economic threat and security threat. The government recently said it will not give the Afghans permission to stay in the country after January 31, although such deadlines have diminished in the past.
Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and Times collaborator Bengali from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali has contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan.