Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, CEO and owner of Pakistan's Jang Group, plays a tape recording of a conversation between him and the government's accountability bureau chief at the Press Club in Rawalpindi on Jan. 31, 1999. (Photo: Tanveer Mughal/AFP)
Opposition leaders, international media bodies and human rights organizations have called for Pakistani authorities to immediately release the editor-in-chief of Jang Group, the country’s largest media company.
Jang Media Group owns Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest TV news channel, English daily The News International, widely circulated Urdu-language newspaper Daily Jang and other sports and entertainment TV channels.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, chief executive and editor-in-chief of the Jang Group, was taken into custody in Lahore on March 12 after he appeared before the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the federal anti-corruption watchdog, to record his statement in a 34-year-old property case.
In his defense Jang Group accused the NAB of threatening its reporters, editors and producers for critical reporting.
"In the past 18 months, NAB has sent our reporters, producers, and editors — directly and indirectly — over a dozen notices, threatening a shutdown of our channels due to our reporting and our programs on NAB," said a spokesperson.
"The group will not stop any reporters, producers or anchors from covering any story that is of merit and at the same time will include NAB’s version.”
Opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari strongly condemned the arrest.
“The arrest of MSR once again has strengthened the perception of lopsided accountability in Pakistan. NAB has lost all credibility and is now only a mere tool in the hands of the government to victimize opponents and silence dissent,” he said in a statement.
“This is an attack on the press, freedom of expression and a clear message to the media that criticism in any form will not be tolerated.”
Separately, New York-based Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman.
“The space for dissent in Pakistan is shrinking fast, and anyone who criticizes government actions can become a target,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman is just the latest case of harassment against Pakistan’s beleaguered media.”
It noted that Pakistan’s media operates in a climate of fear and media outlets are under pressure from authorities not to criticize the government.
“The Pakistan government is failing in its international legal obligation to ensure an environment permitting free expression and dissent,” Adams said. “The authorities should take all measures necessary to stop the intimidation and harassment of the media and dissenting voices.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also urged the authorities to immediately release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman.
“Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau should immediately release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman and drop the obviously drummed-up case against him,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “This arrest over a 34-year-old land deal makes a mockery of Pakistan’s claim to be a democracy that upholds freedom of the press.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was deeply concerned at the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman.
“There remains a strong suspicion that such actions by NAB are selective, arbitrary and politically motivated. The journalism community sees this as yet another attempt to gag a beleaguered independent press. HRCP demands that the government should immediately take steps to address this issue and prove its commitment to #pressfreedom,” it added.