At the top of Friday's print edition of the International New York Times in Pakistan, readers saw a blank 8-by-12-inch white space, after local editors censored the front-page image of a same-sex couple kissing.
The original image, which accompanied an article titled "Couple's suit is first test of gay marriage in China," showed a kiss between Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang. The article, which appeared in full in the Pakistani edition, profiled the couple who filed a landmark lawsuit against the Chinese government's prohibition on same-sex marriage.
"This picture was removed by our publishing alliance in Pakistan," read the caption underneath the blank space. "The International New York Times and its editorial staff had no role in its removal."
See the front page of the International New York Times as it appeared in most countries below:
The international edition of The New York Times is distributed along with The Express Tribune in Pakistan, and it is not unusual for readers of to find chunks of the newspaper wiped clean on account of the material being illegal, deemed blasphemous, or both.
In fact, earlier this month the first and second pages of the international Times were left blank on account of the content being blasphemous. The article in question was a report on the brutal deadly attacks on secular bloggers in Bangladesh, whose writing seeks to bring awareness to the human rights abuses that occur in that country.
Kamal Siddiqi, editor of The Express Tribune, told The Washington Post his paper has a "long standing agreement" with The New York Times which stipulates that Tribune editors are allowed to censor material that they believe "may cause problems locally."
"You will not see a picture in Pakistan of men kissing, in fact, you will not see a picture of anyone kissing," Siddiqi told the Post.
But in an email sent to a Times representative, Siddiqi disclosed his personal opinion on the matter. He pointed to repeated attacks on Pakistani journalists by Islamist militants, who believe the publications are "pursuing a western agenda." In 2014, three staffers working for a Tribune affiliate were murdered by such militants.
"I am as much opposed to the censorship as you all are," Siddiqi wrote. "However, as editor of the Express Tribune, which has over 200 staffers and brings out editions in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar, I am also mindful of the danger and the lives we can put at risk if we decide to print some of these articles."
Saddiqi also stressed that there are no legal protections for journalists in Pakistan, where at least 71 journalists have been killed since 2001, according to The News International. As a predominantly Muslim nation, Saddiqi maintains that Pakistani citizens must resort to "self-censorship" to avoid running afoul of sweeping "blasphemy" laws, violations of which are punishable by death.
"I wish we could do a fraction of the work that the NYT does and we hold it as the standard to aspire towards, but please understand that the on-ground reality is very different for us," Siddiqi added in his email.