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Last updated on 17.10.2018 at 10:56

Pakistan Overview

Human rights defenders work in a hostile environment, where they often face arbitrary arrests, killings, harassment and intimidation by state and non-state actors operating mainly in conflict areas.

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Civil society says shutting down of international NGOs an ‘attack on civic freedoms’

Civil society says shutting down of international NGOs an ‘attack on civic freedoms’

In October 2018, the authorities ordered 18 international non-governmental organization (INGOs) to shut down operations and leave the country including Action Aid

In the July 2018 elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the single largest party in parliament, breaking the control held by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for decades. On 17th August, Pakistan's parliament elected Imran Khan, the leader of PTI, as prime minister in the capital, Islamabad. Imran Khan had presented himself as a "change" candidate bent on building a "new Pakistan".

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, the election was overshadowed by hundreds of political arrests, a massive crackdown on the media and increasing tensions over allegations that the powerful military covertly backed Imran Khan. Leaders of almost every political party except the PTI have alleged ballot-rigging, with some claiming that monitors did not receive final counts or were asked to leave polling stations before tallying was finished.

On 27th August 2018, in a letter from Human Rights Watch (HRW) to the new Prime Minister, the organisation highlighted the climate of fear in Pakistan that impedes media coverage of abuses both by government security forces and militant groups. They called on the PTI party which has been a strong proponent of free expression, including on social media, to “foster a culture of political tolerance for media criticism”.

HRW also called the government to “act to end harassment, intimidation, use of coercion, violence, and other abuses against civil society activists by state security forces and militant groups” and to revise the “Policy for Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan” so that it does not contravene the rights to freedom of expression and association and cannot be misused for political reasons to restrict civil society organisations.


Government tells INGOs to shutdown and leave the country

On 4th October 2018, the authorities ordered 18 international non-governmental organisation (INGOs) to shut down operations and leave the country, including Action Aid which focuses on education, poverty alleviation and human rights. The 18 INGOs had appealed expulsion orders issued in late 2017 to 27 organisations, after their registration applications were rejected. In 2015, Pakistan asked all foreign aid and advocacy organizations to re-register with the government to enhance the monitoring of their operations.

In response, Action Aid stated that:

“Pakistan’s decision to shut down ActionAid and other International NGOs is a worrying escalation of recent attacks on civil society, academics and journalists. The immediate victims will be the thousands of ordinary Pakistani families who ActionAid has been supporting to claim their rights and build a better life. If these trends continue, Pakistan’s hard-won democracy itself will be the ultimate victim.”

On 14th October 2018, local civil society groups working in Pakistan issued a statement urging the government, particularly the Ministry of Interior, to revisit its decision on the 18 INGOs which have been asked to leave. They argued that the whole process of registration of INGOs is marred with serious flaws and the decision to reject the application of the organisations as a denial of due process and "an attack on civic freedoms". The organisations also called on the authorities to review the INGO Registration Policy Framework 2015 through a consultative process and “ensure that democratic and civic space is available to all without any discrimination”.

Pashtun women human rights defender, Gulalai Ismail, briefly detained

On 14th October 2018, Pakistani authorities detained Pashtun human rights activist Gulalai Ismail as she re-entered the country. She was release a few hour later on bail, but the authorities have withheld her passport. Gulalai Ismail said she was returning from London when immigration authorities at an Islamabad airport told her she was on a no-fly list. The authorities could not explain to her which government department had put her name on the list, or why.

In a WhatsApp audio message, Gulalai said that her arrest was the latest sign of how much the civic space is shrinking in Pakistan. She said:

“This is not an attack on Gulalai Ismail, or PTM (Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement). This is an attack on civic freedoms. This is an attack on our liberty to speak out. This is an attack on our freedom of speech.”

Previously, in August 2018, police charged Gulalai Ismail and 18 other people with making anti-state comments and using inflammatory language at a protest rally in Swabi, in Khyber Paktunkhwa province. The rally was organised by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) an organisation calling for an end to human rights violations by the authorities against the Pashtun community in the country's tribal regions. Violations include extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. They are also calling for the removal of military checkpoints in the tribal areas.


Journalist facing prosecution 

On 27th September 2018, the Lahore High Court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant for prominent Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida and imposed a ban on his traveling outside the country.

Cyril Almeida, Assistant Editor at Dawn newspaper, has been summoned by the court for conducting an interview in May 2018 with former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif is facing charges of treason, for comments he made in the interview alleging a link between the Pakistani military and armed groups.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was “greatly perturbed” by the issuance of the arrest warrant against Almeida, who it described as a “widely read and highly respected journalist". The organisation said that Almeida is being “hounded for nothing more than doing his job — speaking on the record to a political figure and reporting the facts". It said the travel ban and the issuing of a non-bailable warrant is an “excessive measure”.

On 8th October 2018, the Lahore High Court ordered the authorities to remove Cyril Almeida’s name from the Exit Control List (ECL) and also withdrew the non-bailable arrest warrant issued against him.

Journalists killed in Haripur and Multan

On 16th October 2018, unidentified gunmen killed journalist Sohail Khan, who works for local TV channel K2, in Haripur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The journalist had reported threats again him after an article he published on drug trafficking. He was on the way home, when he was shot dead.

According to Freedom Network, an organisation monitoring press freedom in Pakistan, Sohail Khan was the fourth journalist killed in the line of duty in Pakistan this year. Three journalists had been killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhw and one in Punjab.

On 23rd August 2018, journalist Abid Hussain, who worked with Sang-e-meel newspaper in Multan died after succumbing to injuries he suffered from an attack, the day before. His father said Hussain was killed for his reporting on “criminal activities” in the area.

According to news reports, the attacker – Tahir Hussain - stopped Abid Hussain and threatened him for filing reports against him. Tahir Hussain and his gang attacked the journalist brutally with bamboo sticks, causing serious injuries to his head. The attackers then openly warned others that they would face the same fate if they came forward to rescue the journalist.

Growing fear and censorship among journalists

On 12th September 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a special report on Pakistan. According to the report, the reduction in the number of journalists killed in recent years masks a decline in press freedom, as media owners and editors are aware of the lines they are not allowed to cross. Senior editors and journalists say that conditions for the free press are as bad as when the country was under military dictatorship.

CPJ says that the military has quietly, but effectively, set restrictions on reporting: from barring access to regions including Baluchistan where there is armed separatism and religious extremism, to encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect methods of intimidation, including calling editors to complain about coverage and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters.

The report also stated that issues including religion, land disputes, militants, and the economy can all spark retaliation—and laws such as the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, a counter-terrorism law that allows people to be detained without charge for 90 days, are used to retaliate against critical reporting. Female journalists must navigate additional pressures when reporting in religiously conservative areas, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or rural districts.

Human rights defender detained for “anti-state activity”

On 24th September, Amnesty International reported that human rights defender Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal has been charged under Section 9 and 10 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) for “anti-state activity through social media”, and section 500 and 109 of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal is a vocal supporter of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and is the social media lead for the PTM. Hayat was detained in his house in Dera Ismail Khan on 5th July 2018 while visiting family during holidays from the UAE, where he works as a pharmacist. The authorities did not provide any information about his fate and whereabouts until six days later, when he called his family and told them he was arrested by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

His bail application was initial rejected by the lower court of Islamabad but on 27th September 2018, the Islamabad High Court granted him post-arrest bail and he was released on 3rd October 2018.

Peaceful Assembly

Political activists charged for shouting ‘anti-judiciary’ slogans at protest

On 10th August 2018, police filed a case under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act against two political activists, Shehzada Kausar Gillani, Raja Imtiaz, both belonging to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). They were charged for shouting slogans against the chief justice of Pakistan and a representative of a state institution during a protest organised by the alliance of 11 parties outside the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) office on election rigging. One of activists, Raja Imtiaz has been detained.

Charges withdrawn against PTM activists

On 24th September 2018, the Islamabad district commissioner withdrew an anti-terrorism case against 37 Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) activists. The PTM members had been charged for arranging protests against state institutions and other government agencies. As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, the 37 were detained in the overcrowded Adiala prison while their cases were being referred to an anti-terrorism court.

Association in Pakistan

Domestic organisations can form and register in Pakistan with no major obstacles and the legal framework can be considered generally enabling for civil society. However, international organisations operate in a much more restrictive legal framework.

Domestic organisations can form and register in Pakistan with no major obstacles and the legal framework can be considered generally enabling for civil society. However, international organisations operate in a much more restrictive legal framework. As part of the new Policy for Regulation of International Non-governmental Organisations, INGOs must re-register and limit their operations to specific issues and geographical areas. Additionally, the Interior Minister stated that foreign organisations will not be allowed to financially support other organisations unless they are authorised by its office. Activists and human rights defenders – mainly those working in conflict areas – face killing, arbitrary arrests, kidnapping by security agencies, religious groups, militants and armed militias. In May 2015, human rights activist Khurram Zaki was killed by four men at a restaurant in Karachi. In November 2015, Muhammad Zaman Mehsud, a monitor from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was murdered by unknown assailants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Radical Islamist groups frequently threaten and attack organisations that promote women’s rights. The Blasphemy Law is widely used to target human rights defenders, especially those defending the rights of religious minorities.

Peaceful assembly in Pakistan

Article 16 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the freedom of assembly but authorisation from the police is required in advance of any assembly.

Article 16 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the freedom of assembly but authorisation from the police is required in advance of any assembly. The legislation also grants discretion to prohibit a demonstration and impose conditions for the holding of protests or demonstrations if authorities consider they will cause a breach of the peace. If those conditions are broken, the demonstration could be considered unlawful. In practice, security forces respond to both lawful and unlawful protests with excessive force to prevent and disperse demonstrations. In May 2016, security forces fired tear gas and shot in the air in response to a protest about land rights. Police arrested many farmers under anti-terrorism and public order legislation. In other protests in the capital, the military has acted as crowd control to disperse protestors, and recently the government banned protests in the so called ‘red zone’, where most of the government buildings are located.

Expression in Pakistan

The legal framework in Pakistan authorises the government to curb freedom of expression on topics including the constitution itself, the armed forces, the judiciary and religion.

The legal framework in Pakistan authorises the government to curb freedom of expression on topics including the constitution itself, the armed forces, the judiciary and religion. Journalists in Pakistan operate in a hostile environment, especially in conflict zones, as they are often the target of violence and intimidation by state and non-state actors. Since 1992, 58 journalists have been killed in Pakistan. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) continues to temporarily suspend TV channels in an attempt to undermine their editorial independence. For example, PEMRA directed TV news channels not to air programmes that might harm Pakistan’s relations with friendly countries. Internet penetration is limited in Pakistan, with 14 percent of the population online in 2014, while online content addressing sensitive subjects is routinely blocked, and the government continues to censor any material considered blasphemous. In 2015, the government banned two documentaries because they ‘presented a negative image of Pakistan.’ In August 2016, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill was passed into law. The new act has been widely condemned because it gives the authorities the power to target unpopular online speech and apply vague and broad provisions to any Pakistani citizen living in the country as well as abroad.