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New cases against Pakistani journalists fuel media crackdown days after prime minister brags about press freedom

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The arrest of a journalist at his home in Karachi and the sedition case against a veteran Pakistani journalist last week have increased journalists and press freedom advocates fearing a crackdown on the media in the country.

On September 11, Bilal Farooqi, editor of The Express Tribune, was accused of spreading hatred and defaming the army after a factory worker complained about journalists’ social media posts that criticized the Pakistani army, according to media reports. He was then released.

Soon after, Jhelum District Police filed a complaint against Absar Alam, a veteran journalist and former chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, accused by a lawyer of posting allegedly derogatory tweets to the against Prime Minister Imran Khan and state institutions.

Pakistan’s Federal Journalists Union condemned the allegations in both cases as fabricated and concocted, local media reported.

There is a lot of pressure to avoid certain kinds of criticism, said Steven Butler, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in Asia.

Since Khan became prime minister in August 2018, the military’s influence over government affairs has grown, as has administrations’ aversion to criticism, Pakistani lawyers and journalists interviewed by the government said. HERE.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Khan said there was no repression in the media and dismissed these concerns as blatant propaganda.

But statistics and journalists’ accounts tell a different story.

Between May 2019 and April 2020, there were more than 90 cases of attacks and violations against members of the press in Pakistan, according to a Freedom Network report. Seven were killed and more incidents were reported after the study was published, including two killings in the southwestern province of Balochistan.

Shockingly, the state and its officials have become the main actor in the threat wielding the biggest stick to get the media to submit and shut up, the director of advocacy groups said in a press release.

To list a few of these cases: the owner of one of the country’s largest media groups is currently in jail on charges related to a three-decade-old land deal; a Pakistani journalist in exile in Amsterdam was assaulted; and a journalist was kidnapped by armed men allegedly associated with the country’s secret service prior to his appearance in court in connection with a contempt case.

In July, CCTV camera footage showed plainclothes officials and police surrounding journalist Matiullah Jan outside a school in Islamabad where his wife works as a teacher and dragging him out of his vehicle in broad daylight. The journalist, known to have criticized the army, was arrested and released a few hours later.

In March, officials from the Pakistani anti-corruption agency arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, a media mogul who owns the Jang Media Group which includes Geo TVl and The News, a newspaper and a partner of the International Consortium of Journalists. investigation.

Officials alleged that in 1986 Rahman illegally acquired land belonging to the government of the future Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was then chief minister of Punjab province. (Sharif was ousted in 2017 after the Panama Papers revelations and another corruption investigation against him.)

The Rahmans Jang group claimed that since 2018 its reporters and editors have received several threatening letters from officials for criticizing the government and the agency.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported that the Rehmans case is one of many illegal arrests made by the national anti-corruption agency and shows how the agency is abusing its powers to detain government critics.

Rehman was denied bail and was temporarily allowed to stay in hospital due to his poor health conditions, said Umar Cheema, ICIJ member and reporter at one of the Jang publications. Media Group.

Rehmans’ lawyers are now taking the case to the Supreme Court, he said. No test date has been set.

His arrest shattered our confidence to an irreparable level, Cheema said.

Cheema also told the ICIJ he was surprised at how quickly the government’s attitude towards the media changed with the new administration. It happened all of a sudden, faster than expected.

An episode in early 2019 made him realize that things were getting worse for reporters, he said.

In February last year, Cheema was forced to remove a photo of the slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that he and others posted on their Twitter profiles, ahead of the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Cheema said he was woken up in the middle of the night by his editors who received threatening calls from government officials.

This is the worst time for press freedom in Pakistan, said Cheema, who in 2010 was kidnapped and tortured by assailants who he said were associated with the intelligence agency controlled by the army.

This year, Pakistan has dropped six places in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings compared to 2018, when Khan was elected.

Censorship behind the curtain

Even before these recent cases, Pakistan has long been labeled as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

But observers interviewed by the ICIJ said that while there may be fewer violent attacks than in the past, the tactics have changed. The powerful military, they said, have now shifted to a more sophisticated type of intimidation of controlling results and media distribution.

Online harassment of journalists by government supporters and the dissemination of government advertisements are not uncommon, leading some reporters and media to opt for self-censorship to avoid layoffs, said Daniel Bastard, who heads the Asia office. -Pacific by Reporters Without Borders.

Its censorship behind the curtain, Bastard said.

Pakistani journalists abroad are also not safe, he added.

In Europe, the number of Pakistani journalists and bloggers attacked for criticizing the authorities in their country is increasing, according to Radio Free Europe.

In May, Sajid Hussain, who was granted asylum in Sweden in 2019 after spending years in exile, was found dead in a river north of Stockholm after going missing in March.

Hussain ran the Balochistan Times from overseas and was known for covering human rights abuses in the province, including Pakistani military abuses against political activists and dissidents.

After his body was found, Swedish authorities ruled out criminal acts, according to reports. But Reporters Without Borders said his death remains suspicious and could possibly be linked to the Pakistani intelligence agency. The case is very worrying, Bastard said.

While currently abroad, a Pakistani journalist who was assaulted and seriously injured in 2017 is now trying to create a new independent media outlet.

After being forced to resign due to alleged pressure from the military establishment on his former employer, investigative journalist Ahmad Noorani decided to set up his own data-driven investigative news site recently renamed Fact Focus.

Shortly after the launch, government officials began visiting his home and threatening him, said Noorani, who currently does a stock exchange in the United States and operates the website remotely.

To avoid further threats and censorship in the future, Noorani said he plans to build a website that can withstand possible attacks.

In the meantime, his startup which aims to focus on the environment, health and human rights has already made headlines with an investigation into a government adviser close to the military. Noorani and his team recently exposed the secret trade deals of a retired general who is currently advising the prime minister and chairing a China-funded infrastructure megaproject. The counselor denied all the allegations.

Shortly after the article was published, Fact Focus reporters received threats from government officials and are now on the alert, Noorani said.

They want all the critics to go completely silent, he said.

Despite the threats, Noorani plans to return to Pakistan once his stay in the United States is over and continue to run his independent website. I am not afraid, he said, because this is something Pakistan needs.

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