Pakistan: Alarming crackdown on press freedom ahead of elections

The Pakistani authorities must end the current crackdown on human rights activists, journalists and other members of civil society in the lead up to next month’s general elections, Amnesty International said today.

On 25 July, Pakistanis will elect their next civilian government. Amnesty is alarmed by the ongoing wave of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, attacks on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia, said:

“Key freedoms are under relentless attack in Pakistan, with the authorities cracking down on dissent, whether it takes place on the streets, on television news channels, in newspaper columns, or on social media.”

Freedom of expression under attack

Amnesty International is deeply concerned by the hours-long arbitrary detention of Gul Bukhari in Lahore in the early hours of 6 June 2018.

Gul Bukhari, a British-Pakistani columnist and activist, who has been a critic of the Pakistani military and a supporter of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s (PTM) support for constitutional rights, was en route to a television news station when, according to an eyewitness, the car she was traveling in was suddenly surrounded by multiple vehicles. Gul Bukhari returned home a few hours later.

Gul Bukhari’s detention came a day after the military’s chief spokesman complained at a press conference that social media users are criticising “the state”. The press conference – during which the military’s chief spokesman highlighted several social media accounts of bloggers, journalists, activists and human rights defenders – has raised fears that Pakistanis will now be targeted for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.

On 7 June, speaking at a meeting of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society in Islamabad, Hameed Haroon, the CEO of the respected Dawn Media Group, warned that Pakistan is “encountering the most dangerous attack” on the right to freedom of expression.

Dawn has seen its circulation heavily disrupted in the country, while the newspaper has come under intense pressure for its independent editorial policy. Newsagents have been warned against stocking the newspaper, and street vendors have been harassed and intimidated for selling it.

Similar pressure has been applied on the Jang media group. Over recent weeks, several columnists who regularly write for the Jang group’s English-language newspaper, The News, said the newspaper was unable to publish their articles because of fear of official reprisals.

Dinushika Dissanayake said:

“Pakistan once proudly boasted a lively and independent media. This, sadly, has stopped being the case. People can no longer speak or write freely.”

Detentions of protestors, journalists and human rights defenders

Amnesty is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of 37 activists currently detained at the overcrowded Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi for participating in the PTM’s peaceful protests, which called for an end to extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.

The 37 activists, including several students due to sit their exams soon, were charged with “sedition” – under colonial-era laws that are inconsistent and incompatible with international standards – and had their request for bail rejected. The case has now been referred to an anti-terrorism court.

Dinushika Dissanayake said:

“Peaceful protest is a right protected by international human rights law and the Pakistani Constitution.

“The charge of sedition has no place in a modern, rights-respecting society, and peaceful students should never be tried in an anti-terrorism court. The 37 activists must be released immediately and unconditionally, as they are detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

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