By Sairah Masud

LONDON mayor Sadiq Khan has been criticised over his office banning an ad campaign relating to a conflict-ridden region in Pakistan.

The #FreeBalochistan adverts were displayed on London taxis and buses to highlight alleged “war crimes and human rights abuses”, but were later removed by Transport for London (TfL) for allegedly breaching advertising guidelines.

Peter Tatchell, a human rights activist who helped organise the campaign, told Eastern Eye that the ban was an attack on freedom of expression. He accused TfL of allowing a foreign government to “dictate” the adverts it carries.

“Transport for London was wrong to bow to ‘demands’ by the Pakistan government to block these human rights adverts. Pakistan is seeking to ‘impose in Britain the same censorship’ about Balochistan that it imposes inside Pakistan,” Tatchell said.

“The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled that the adverts are legitimate and acceptable, so why is Transport for London still censoring them? I appeal to the mayor to intervene to get the adverts reinstated,” he added.

PRESSURE: Pakistan has allegedly objected to the Free Balochistan advertisements being carried on London taxis and buses

Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, is Pakistan’s most restive province. It is afflicted by Islamist militancy and sectarian violence as well as the separatist insurgency.

The region, which makes up 44 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass, has often made the headlines with reports of mass kidnappings, torture and executions.

The ASA said it had considered the complaints, including from the Pakistan High Commission, regarding the “Free Balochistan” ads but did not believe there were grounds to launch a formal investigation, despite it being a “politically sensitive issue”.

“After carefully assessing the complaints, ASA council did not consider that the ‘Free Balochistan’ ad made a specific claim that threatened the territorial integrity or sovereignty of Pakistan,” the agency said.

It added that advertisers had a right to express their views as long as the ad was in line with the Advertising Code.

“The ASA’s role is to assess what appears in an ad itself, not to make broader judgements
about the intent or political cause of an ad,” it said.

“As such, without making a judgment on the legitimacy of the cause being advertised, we considered the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence and did not take further action.”

A spokesperson for TfL said: “The advert did not comply with our advertising guidelines. We instructed London Taxi Advertising to remove them.”

TfL’s advertising policy says “adverts defending the right to life, liberty and security will not normally be banned, even if they are controversial and sensitive”.

Earlier this year, the company allowed the display of an overt political ad campaign relating to the regional dispute in Qatar over alleged human rights abuses.

Taxi’s carrying the ads relating to the regional dispute in Qatar was permitted by TfL

When asked about this specific instance, TfL said it had “nothing further to add”.

According to media reports in Pakistan, the British high commissioner in Islamabad, Thomas Drew, was summoned by Pakistani authorities on two separate occasions last month over the adverts, which Pakistan said “directly attack its territorial integrity and sovereignty” and should not be allowed on “the soil of a friendly country”.

Bhawal Mengal, a human rights activist from the World Baloch Organisation and coordinator of the ad campaign, claimed that TfL’s actions were “unfair” to the Baloch
people and British values.

He said: “It was surprising that the UK high commissioner would succumb to the pressure so quickly and release a statement that is actually against the UN charter which Britain is a signatory of.

“Sadiq Khan was quick to act on Pakistan’s orders in getting TfL to remove the ads, without realising that if the ads were in fact a major violation of its guidelines, how did they make it on to the cabs and buses to begin with?”

Bhawal claimed such campaigns are important to make people aware of the human rights breaches in the region.

“I would simply ask them to reconsider the adverts, not to give in to Pakistan’s bullying tactics and rather be true to their values and to the values that the UK believes in and stands for,” Mengal added.