Islamabad: Pakistani authorities on Friday closed the offices of a US government-funded radio station whose broadcasts it said were “against the interests of Pakistan,” dealing another blow to relations with the United States.
The Pakistani Interior Ministry said that Radio Mashaal portrayed the country as “a hub of terrorism” and “a failed state” that could not provide security for its people, particularly religious minorities and long-term refugees from Afghanistan.
The ministry said it shut the organisation’s Islamabad office on the recommendations of Inter-Services Intelligence, the powerful spy agency of the Pakistani military, which has been the target of intense criticism from President Trump.
The Trump administration this month announced that the US would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance due to Pakistan’s inability to crack down on militant groups that range across the border to attack US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Trump has also called out Pakistan repeatedly on Twitter, accusing the US ally, which has accepted $33 billion [Dh121 billion] in US funding to fight terrorism since 2002, of “lies and deceit.”
Pakistani officials said the decision to close Radio Mashaal was not a response to Trump but the result of long-standing concerns about its content. A letter from the Interior Ministry said the station’s broadcasts were “in line with [a] hostile intelligence agency’s agenda” — a likely reference to Afghanistan, whose leaders accuse Pakistan of sponsoring the Taliban and other militant groups battling the Kabul government.
Radio Mashaal, which broadcasts on the radio and online in the Pashto language, airs political and social coverage and is particularly popular in the marginalised northwestern tribal areas along the Afghan border. The region is home to a large population of mainly ethnic Pashtun refugees who have fled decades of conflict in Afghanistan but face severe restrictions from the Pakistani government.
The station is part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a non-profit broadcasting organisation funded by Congress and based in Prague, Czech Republic. Started during the Cold War as an alternative to pro-Soviet propaganda, the organisation airs programmes in 23 countries that it says face media restrictions, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
In a story on its website, Radio Free Europe’s president, Thomas Kent, said he was “extraordinarily concerned by the closure” and “urgently seeking more information about the Pakistani authorities’ intentions.”
Kent described Radio Mashaal as a “private news organisation supported by the US Congress with no connection to the intelligence agencies of any country,” and said he hoped “the situation will be resolved without delay.”
“We have seen these reports and have expressed our concerns to the government of Pakistan,” said a US State Department spokesman. “We are closely monitoring the situation.”
He added: “The United States supports media freedom around the world. An active and independent press is a cornerstone of democratic governance.”
Islamist parties in Pakistan have frequently accused the station — and other US-funded news organisations including Voice of America — of anti-Pakistan bias. In November, demonstrators held protests opposing Radio Mashaal’s coverage of proposed administrative reforms that would grant greater rights to people in the tribal belt.
Radio Mashaal claims 1.2 million Facebook fans and operates with a staff of 24 in Prague and three in Pakistan. It was not immediately clear what impact the closure would have on Radio Mashaal’s ability to broadcast in Pakistan.
Martins Zvaners, a spokesman for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said the organisation’s offices in Islamabad were closed and sealed. But, he added, because Pakistani authorities do not allow Radio Mashaal use of transmission facilities inside the country, its broadcasts via an AM transmitter in Afghanistan, as well as short-wave and satellite signals and the internet, will not be interrupted.
The move comes weeks after Pakistan ordered more than 20 international charity organisations to close their operations in the country, without offering an explanation for the decision. Activists have decried the move as an assault on free speech and humanitarian work.
Pakistan has also tried to expel more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees, viewing them as an economic drain and security threat. The government recently said it would not extend permission for Afghans to remain in the country beyond Jan. 31, although such deadlines have slipped in the past.
Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan.