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Pakistani reporters tortured for coronavirus coverage

Media groups slam authorities for arresting and harassing journalists doing critical stories on Covid-19

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Pakistani reporters tortured for coronavirus coverage

Saeed Ali Achakzai (left) and Abdul Mateen Achakzai after being released from notorious Machh jail, where they were held for reporting on Covid-19. (Screenshot)

Saeed Ali Achakzai was jailed three weeks after exposing the lack of facilities at a quarantine camp near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

He reported a clash between 200 people, including women and children, and management of the center located 500 meters from the border in Chaman city of Balochistan province. The group broke the main gate of the camp and fled on June 8. They complained of a lack of food for two days and a shortage of water in temperatures of 40 degree Celsius. 

On June 19 around 7pm, Ali received a phone call from an official of Balochistan Levies, a paramilitary force.

“A Frontier Corps [another paramilitary force] officer wanted to meet me and Abdul Mateen Achakzai, a fellow journalist, at the same quarantine camp. They took our mobile phones and presented us before the revenue officer,” he told UCA News.

The television reporters were then hurled into a Levies armored personnel carrier.

“After blindfolding us, they started slapping and whipping our backs with cable wires. We were laid on the hot floor of the vehicle. They questioned whether we belong to traders protesting the closed borders or a human rights group of the Pashtun community,” said the 40-year-old journalist.

“We were beaten more severely for being journalists. The torture continued until we had traveled more than 300 kilometers. Only once were we provided water. We couldn’t sit due to pain. At around 3am, I started smelling coal.”

The prison

The reporters spent that night in the lockup in Machh, a sleepy town famous for its pre-partition jail and coal mines. They were arrested under Section 3 of the Maintenance Public Ordinance (MPO) 1960, which allows the government to arrest and detain any person to ensure public safety. The controversial “black law” doesn’t require registration of a police case or filing of a first information report.

The next morning they were transferred to Machh jail, one of the most dreaded prisons in Pakistan and known by the honorific Kala Pani (black waters) because of the deserted dry mountains and harsh weather conditions.

“We were locked in cell number 9. The jail was known for imprisoning Baloch freedom fighters who battled the British. The temperature was now 45 degrees. I kept cleaning the sweat with a small handkerchief. The small cell had no water tap or even a toilet. I kept praying and thinking about my family,” said Ali, a father of 10.

Following protest rallies outside the Balochistan assembly by local journalists, the pair were released on June 22. At Quetta’s Press Club, they showed their wounds to other reporters. Their names have now been placed on the list of fourth schedule.

“We cannot leave our city. Our activities are being monitored and we have to report to the local police station every week. The paramilitary force still have my car keys. We are still being harassed,” said Ali, who has been reporting for more than two decades. 

“The reporters at the border line are not free. We resort to social media to publicize the news. Still, we are proud of reporting the failures of the district administration.”

According to Balochista's Home Minister Ziaullah Langove, an inquiry is underway into the "brutal incident" and three officials who were directly involved have been suspended.

The reaction

Media rights organization Freedom Network condemned the federal and provincial authorities for arresting, threatening, intimidating and harassing journalists doing critical stories on Covid-19 in Pakistan.

“What happened to two journalists in Chaman and one in Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is alarming, and these case and other cases speak of the authorities’ disregard for free flow of information to stay safe,” stated the Islamabad-based group in its June 29 Press Freedom Alert.

“The journalists returned with torture signs on their bodies. Such treatment of journalists underlines the authorities’ intent to silence critical journalists. This attitude is condemnable and unacceptable.”

Freedom Network also condemned authorities in Dera Ismail Khan district for harassing Sajid Baloch, who had reported Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur’s visit to a town despite a ban on public gatherings.

“There is a clear pattern Freedom Network is noting that the authorities are linking journalists with public disorder while using the 3 MPO law. This is an extremely dangerous attitude on the part of the government authorities and we demand journalists must be allowed to report Covid-19 fearlessly and independently,” concluded the statement.

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) added in another statement that “it is absolutely unacceptable that representatives of the security forces should commit acts of torture simply because they didn’t like what these two journalists reported.”

RSF said journalists working in Chaman are constantly harassed for covering corruption and “every kind of trafficking” between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan was ranked 145th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index

Sharafat Shareef, executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan Quetta (CPQ), also reported unhygienic conditions at the quarantine center on the Taftan border with Iran.

“The Shia pilgrims shared tent-based toilets with no sewerage system. Even animals cannot live in such conditions. People are afraid to visit local hospitals due to the inhuman attitude of the staff. The pandemic has exposed the broken health system. Overpopulation is the biggest challenge for administration,” he said.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in late February, CPQ has distributed 850 face masks, distributed 150 food packages and held awareness sessions with 3,000 people in the apostolic prefecture.

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