Calls grow for Pakistan's government to halt vicious attacks on journalists
Asad Ali Toor was attacked in his home by three masked men. (Photo: Committee to Protect Journalists)
Pressure is mounting on Pakistan’s government to investigate the growing number of attacks on journalists and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists have voiced alarm over a recent series of attacks and growing pressure on journalists critical of Pakistani authorities.
The rights groups said those suspected of criminal responsibility should be promptly and fairly prosecuted.
“The Pakistan government should conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the recent number of attacks on journalists. The government should rescind official policies that protect the authorities from criticism and instead promote space for public debate and free expression, in the face of threats from extremist groups and government officials,” they said in a joint statement on June 3.
The statement came after fresh treason cases were filed against noted Pakistani journalists and anchors Hamid Mir and Asma Shirazi.
The two had addressed a rally of the media fraternity protesting a recent attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor.
The PM’s false claim of the most free press in the world is exposed on a daily basis now
In her remarks, Shirazi said truth had a price. “Faced all kind of threats and pressures numerous times. Musharraf [former military dictator] banned us in 2007, dealt with treason threats and all kinds of pressure tactics,” she tweeted.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, condemned the registration of cases against senior journalists.
“The PM’s false claim of the most free press in the world is exposed on a daily basis now,” Zardari said.
On May 25, Toor was assaulted by three masked men who forcibly entered his apartment in Islamabad. They bound and gagged him and severely beat him.
Toor said that they identified themselves as being from a security agency, interrogated him about the “source of his funds” and took away his cellphone and other electronic devices.
The government ordered an investigation into the incident. In September 2020, authorities charged Toor with sedition for comments made on social media “maligning state institutions.” A court later dismissed the charge.
On April 20, an unidentified assailant shot and wounded television journalist Absar Alam outside his house in Islamabad. Alam has been a prominent critic of the government. In September 2020, the authorities charged Alam with sedition and “high treason” for using “derogatory language” about the government on social media.
On July 21, 2020, an unidentified assailant abducted another journalist, Matiullah Jan, in Islamabad the day before he was to appear before the Supreme Court for allegedly “using derogatory/contemptuous language and maligning the institution of the judiciary.”
Jan was released after a few hours. He alleged the abduction was an attempt to intimidate him. A criminal case was registered over the abduction, but no suspects have been arrested.
“The frequency and audacity with which journalists are being attacked in Pakistan is appalling,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The Pakistani authorities should bring those responsible for these attacks to justice and ensure that all journalists can do their jobs without fear of intimidation or reprisals.”
Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists, said it is disturbing to see the space for dissent and providing information of public importance rapidly shrink in Pakistan, with journalists as well as human rights defenders particularly at risk of censorship, physical violence and arbitrary detention.
Pakistani journalists have long faced serious obstacles to their work, including harassment, intimidation, assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, abduction and death.
As these threats have escalated, Pakistani authorities have also increasingly pressured editors and media owners to shut down critical voices. On May 29, news channel Geo “suspended” Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best-known television talk show hosts, after he spoke at a protest in solidarity with Asad Toor.
If the authorities are committed to uphold their human rights obligations, they must take decisive steps against censorship, harassment and violence against journalists
Other media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary. In several cases in recent years, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs.
In 2020, Pakistan ranked ninth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual Global Impunity Index, with at least 15 unsolved killings of journalists since 2010.
In July 2020, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered 24NewsHD off the air indefinitely for the alleged illegal transmission of news and current affairs content. Journalists and opposition activists claimed that the channel was being punished for airing criticism of the government.
In August 2020, a group of leading female journalists issued a statement condemning a “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of social media attacks, including death and rape threats, against journalists and commentators whose reporting had been critical of the government.
“If the authorities are committed to uphold their human rights obligations, they must take decisive steps against censorship, harassment and violence against journalists,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, South Asia deputy regional director at Amnesty International. “For that, continued impunity must be dismantled.”
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