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Pakistan: 'Appalling' escalating attacks on journalists must stop

Hamid Mir was suspended after speaking out in support of journalist colleagues

Authorities must stop stifling dissent, and instead protect the media

A recent series of attacks and growing pressure on journalists who criticise the Pakistan government is a cause for serious concern, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said today in a joint statement.

Pakistani journalists have long faced serious obstacles to their work, including harassment, intimidation, assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, abduction, and death. In recent months, violent attacks on journalists have increased dramatically.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The frequency and audacity with which journalists are being attacked in Pakistan is appalling. 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.” 

Dinushika Dissanayake, South Asia deputy regional director at Amnesty International, said: “If the authorities are committed to upholding their human rights obligations, they must take decisive steps against censorship, harassment and violence against journalists. For that, continued impunity must be dismantled.”

The organisations are calling on the Pakistan government to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into recent attacks, and ensure those suspected of criminal responsibility are promptly and fairly prosecuted. The government should also rescind official policies that protect the authorities from criticism.

Journalists under attack

On May 25 2021, journalist Asad Ali Toor was assaulted by three unidentified men who forcibly entered his apartment in Islamabad. They bound and gagged Toor, before severely beating him. Toor said they identified themselves as being from a security agency, interrogated him about the “source of his funds,” and took away his mobile phone and other electronic devices. The government ordered an investigation into the incident. On May 29, the news channel Geo “suspended” Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best-known television talk show hosts, after Mir spoke at a protest in solidarity with Toor. 

On April 20, an unidentified assailant shot and wounded Absar Alam, a television journalist, outside his house in Islamabad. Alam has been a prominent critic of the government.

On July 21 2020, an unidentified assailant abducted 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 judiciary.” Jan was released after a few hours. He alleged the abduction was an attempt to intimidate him. A criminal case was registered for Jan’s abduction, but no suspects have been arrested. 

Media owners threatened

Other media outlets have also come under pressure from authorities not to criticise 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 July 2020, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered 24NewsHD, a television news channel, off the air indefinitely for the alleged “illegal transmission of news and current affairs content.” Journalists and opposition activists alleged 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 women journalists and commentators whose reporting has been critical of the government.

In 2020, Pakistan ranked ninth on the Committee to Protect Journalist’s annual Global Impunity Index, with at least 15 unsolved killings of journalists since 2010.

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.”

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