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Attempt to muzzle media sparks anger in Pakistan

Journalists' union attacks 'fictitious, fabricated and concocted' cases under cybercrime law

Attempt to muzzle media sparks anger in Pakistan

Pakistan opposition leaders and media representatives gather during a press conference at the end of All Parties Conference in Islamabad on Sept 20. The opposition announced a nationwide protest movement against the government and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Photo: AFP)

Press bodies and human rights groups have expressed anger and concern over the registration of cases against dozens of journalists under Pakistan’s notorious cybercrime law.

At least 49 journalists and social media activists critical of Imran Khan’s government and powerful military establishment have reportedly been booked under the Pakistan Electronic Crime Act (PECA) by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

In a Sept. 24 statement, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) voiced serious concern and anger over “fictitious, fabricated and concocted” cases.

PFUJ president Shahzada Zulfiqar and secretary-general Nasir Zaidi criticized the arm-twisting tactics against journalists and social media activists and called on the government to immediately withdraw cases.

The union warned that there would be countrywide protests against such “brutal, ill-conceived and ill-designed acts by authorities.”

PFUJ leaders urged parliament, the Supreme Court, international community and human rights organizations to take urgent notice of the worsening situation in Pakistan.

“We have tackled and countered such conditions and high-highhandedness against the media and journalist community in the past and defeated the forces of suppression. We are committed to defeat them even today to safeguard our constitutional rights,” they warned.

Amnesty International also slammed the attempt to gag the media.

“Intimidating journalists through the draconian Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act is the latest and most brazen attack on freedom of expression in the country. We call upon authorities to withdraw these charges immediately,” it said.

Pakistan’s independent rights body said it was alarmed by the news in circulation that the FIA is registering cases against 49 journalists and social media activists under PECA regulations.

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“We demand that the state refrain from such action and stop using the FIA to curb political dissent,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said.

According to sources, prominent journalists and social media activists including Aizaz Syed, Asad Toor, Umar Cheema, Ihtisham Afghan, Murtaza Solangi and Ammar Masood are among the 49 charged under the cybercrime law.

Shireen Mazari, a human rights minister, denied her government’s hand in targeting journalists.

“A private citizen has sent a complaint to the FIA against around 12 journalists. The FIA examines all complaints but no FIR [first information report] has been registered and the FIA can't register a FIR under PECA without following the specified legal procedure,” Mazari said.

“If anyone has contrary evidence in terms of FIRs, do let me know so I can follow up further.”

Journalist Asad Toor was recently booked for using “derogatory language” against government institutions and Pakistan’s army on social media. He managed to secure protective bail from Islamabad High Court on Sept. 16.

Bilol Farooqi, a Karachi-based journalist, was briefly detained on Sept. 11 on charges of sharing “highly objectionable material” and defaming Pakistan’s army” on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Farooqi has been vocal about religiously motivated violence being inflicted on minorities.

At least 91 attacks on journalists were recorded in Pakistan between May 2019 and April 2020, according to Freedom Network Pakistan.

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