For almost five years, Talat Hussain, a well-known Pakistani journalist, hosted a popular current affairs talk show on Geo TV, openly discussing the political issues of the day. But last year all that changed. Forced to comply with a “total blackout” of news that criticised the military or the government of the new prime minister, Imran Khan, Hussain found himself unable to speak freely.

“My programs were being repeatedly censored,” said Hussain. “I was told that any suggestion that the 2018 elections were rigged or that the army was part of the running of the government by Imran Khan was unacceptable.”

While Pakistan has a turbulent relationship with media freedom, under Imran Khan, elected as prime minister last year with strong backing from the military, censorship is felt heavier than ever before.

Journalists, activists, authors and politicians spoke to the Guardian of a climate of “extreme fear and self-censorship”, and the suppression of opposition political voices, even worse than during the military dictatorship of General Zia, who oppressively ruled Pakistan between 1977 and 1988.

“I was told by Geo News administration that they could not air my analysis because the army, represented by ISPR [the media wing of the Pakistan armed forces], was very unhappy and they would shut down channel transmission if I continued to speak like I did, which they said was financially ruinous for them,” said Hussain.

“In the end they used the ruse of downsizing and asked me to reduce my team and their salaries, which I refused and left.”

Hussain’s account of direct involvement by the military and political authorities in censoring stories critical to the government was repeated by half a dozen journalists. The pressure was reportedly exerted both through direct edicts to editors and producers, to less direct but more costly interventions such as pulling TV stations from transmission, targeting advertising revenue of dissenting media or pulling newspapers from circulation.

In many cases, the trend towards heavy censorship pre-dates Khan’s premiership, but he has been criticised for allowing it to continue, if not ramping it up. In 2017, Mohammed Hanif, a celebrated Pakistani novelist and satirist, was surprised to open the New York Times to find his article, titled Pakistan’s Triangle of Hate: Taliban, Army and India, had been removed and there was nothing but an empty page.

“When you see a blank space in a newspaper where your article should have been, it’s slightly terrifying,” said Hanif. “It reminds you of old-fashioned censorship that we had during military dictatorships.” Speaking of the current government, Hanif said that “censorship … is the worst we have seen”.

Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper, suffered huge financial losses in June last year when the military restricted its distribution after they published leaks of secret military meetings.

The censoring of critical voices is not only restricted to media. Last week, an exhibition at the Karachi Biennale by the artist Adeela Suleman, called The Killing Fields of Karachi, which addressed the extrajudicial deaths of 444 people at the hands of the police chief Rao Anwar, was raided by the authorities and ordered to be shut down.

The military and government have actively denied any involvement with censoring the press or culture. Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, said: “The current PTI government is providing the best and most effective environment for freedom of speech. Journalists are free to write what they want and most news reports are against the government. These are just lies that the government is not allowing media to give coverage to opposition. The issue is that censorship is in the minds of some journalists and politicians.”

ISPR declined to give an on-the-record statement.

However, last week the broadcast regulator Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) was forced to backtrack on a directive issued to all TV news anchors, banning them from expressing personal views on their shows, punishable by a fine of up to 10 million rupees (£189,384), after it was publicly slammed by Reporters Without Borders as a “grotesque” example of censorship. On Friday, the Peshawar high court also ruled that Pemra’s ban on TV channels airing a press conference by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the opposition, was illegal. Pemra did not respond to request for comment.

According to Gibran Peshimam, executive producer of one of Pakistan’s most well-known current affairs shows, Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Sath, “there are many layers of censorship by many quarters ... it’s more sophisticated, and more nuanced, than it has been in the past”.

Senior management figures spoke anonymously of a draconian approach of collective punishment which was being inflicted on media organisations. If one reporter or news channel reported a story that threw the government into disrepute, the business interests of the media owners would be targeted or advertising funding withheld.

With media in Pakistan already suffering financial losses across the board, it meant pressures of self-censorship and appeasement of the government has become rife, particularly at the top levels of media organisations.

“I feel journalism is under threat more than it has ever been in Pakistan,” said Ali Haider Habib, a former senior editor at Herald, an investigative news magazine which closed down this year, allegedly due to mounting pressure from the military establishment about its critical reporting. “I have not lived through Zia’s regime but my mentors have always told me how it was known who the force behind the censorship was and people acknowledged it quite openly. Today, the censorship comes from a shadowy force that one can not even name. The number of journalists and activists who have been ‘picked up’ recently is a painful reminder of that.”

The military’s hostility towards the media was demonstrated in June last year, when Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the director general of the ISPR, singled out dozens of journalists for their “anti-Pakistan” activity on social media. He repeated the sentiment on his own Twitter account in July this year, calling out “irresponsible” journalists, which led to the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakjournalists to trend on Twitter in Pakistan, used more than 28,000 times.

Hamid Mir, an award-winning Pakistani journalist, is no stranger to being targeted for his reporting. But even after enduring years of criminal charges and threats, including an assassination attempt in 2014, allegedly by the Pakistan intelligence services, which saw him hit with six bullets in the ribs, thigh, stomach and across his hand, Mir said he had never witnessed such brazen interference in media.

“Over the last year, we are facing naked censorship,” said Mir. It was in June this year that his political talk show Capital Talk was stopped minutes into transmission during an interview with the former president, Asif Ali Zardari, who is very critical of Khan’s administration.

“Prime minister Imran Khan was giving an interview to another channel, ARY on the same day at the same time,” he said. “I later learned that when the prime minister came to know that a Zardari interview was airing simultaneously, he asked his people to stop it and it was stopped.”

An adviser to Khan later justified the decision to cut the interview because Zardari is facing trial, although this is not a standard policy. After Mir conducted a live TV phone interview with Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of the beleaguered former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and a fierce critic of Khan, he was stopped from doing live shows altogether.

Mir’s column in the Urdu daily newspaper Jang was also cut recently when he used it to criticise media censorship. “General Zia was a dictator, General Musharraf was a dictator, but Imran Khan is a democratically elected prime minister,” he said. “If he is behaving like Zia and Musharraf it is more painful. We cannot compare dictatorship with democracy. If we are facing censorship in a democracy then it is a fraud.”