Pashtun protests continue despite pressure from authorities

Peaceful Assembly

Ethnic Pashtuns have been peacefully protesting over the last few months 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.

In February 2018, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns or PTM) first staged a ten-day sit-in protest in Islamabad in response to the January killing of 27-year old Naqeebullah Mehsud during what Pakistani police described as a raid on a “terrorist hideout” in eastern Karachi. Mehsud’s relatives in his native South Waziristan, where he was buried, deny that he was a militant. The PTM relaunched demonstrations in March after it claimed the government had failed to address the group's complaints.

On 8th April 2018, tens of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns gathered in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar for a peaceful mass protest, despite a media blackout in much of the country over the demonstration. During the gathering, Manzoor Pashteen, the founder and leader of the PTM, called on the government  to form a judicial commission to investigate alleged extrajudicial killings in Pashtun-dominated regions of Pakistan. On 22nd April, another mass protest was organised by the PTM in the eastern city of Lahore, while on 29th April protests were held in the Swat Valley.

According to leaders of the PTM, military and civilian authorities imposed restrictions ahead of the protest in the Swat Valley. Locals were pressured to stay away and told they would be included into the official list of Taliban insurgents if they participated. Local printing presses also refused to print campaign posters and many local media outlets refrained from covering the event, allegedly under pressure from the army. The week before, in Lahore police arrested human rights activists, as well as students, ahead of the protest (see video below).

According to Amnesty International, criminal cases were filed in March 2018 against Manzoor Pashteen and other leaders of the PTM for their protests. Amnesty responded that:

“The trumped-up cases appear to be an attempt to smear the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and punish its leaders for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The PTM has up to now been a peaceful, grassroots movement demanding equality for Pakistan’s Pashtun community, which has suffered systemic discrimination and human rights violations”.

Expression

Attack on editor of Human Right Commission report

Activists have raised concerns over the security of human rights defenders in Pakistan following a "burglary-style raid" on the house of the editor of an annual report by the Pakistan Human Rights Commission.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said in a statement that two armed men broke into the house of Maryam Hasan in Lahore on 20th April 2018, just days after the release of the critical report she had edited.

The men confiscated her laptop, two hard drives and two mobile phones, as well as some jewelry and cash. The burglars told Hasan that they had also come the previous day, but left since she was not home at the time. According to HRCP, the alleged perpetrators questioned Hasan about her profession and "intimidated" her.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's report highlighted the "grim markers" of the state of human rights in the country in 2017. It expressed concern over an increase in enforced disappearances, blasphemy-related violence and extrajudicial killings in the past year.

The organisation also criticised the government for failing to show its commitment to address key human rights issues during its Universal Periodic Review which was adopted in March 2018 at the UN. The government did not accept any of the 14 recommendations that called for the repeal or amendment of blasphemy laws as well as a recommendation to take steps to protect freedom of expression online. Furthermore, none of the ten recommendations that called for the adoption of measures aimed at protecting religious minorities and the right to freedom of religion or belief garnered government support.

Blackout of Pakistani TV channel

Pakistan's Geo TV was taken off the air in many parts of the country on 1st April 2018, including in Karachi, Lahore and Multan. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and the government have insisted they were not behind the suspension. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said he launched an investigation into the issue but the perpetrators have still not been identified.

With no claims of responsibility, many suspect the military, which has an overt role in domestic and foreign affairs in Pakistan. The Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence services have long been accused of stifling independent media and silencing opposition through intimidation, censorship and even assassination. Geo TV anchors and senior journalists have refused to tow the military line and have been one of the few Pakistani media outlets that provide an alternative perspective on national issues..

The Committee to Protect Journalist's Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler raised concerns about the suspension as it represents:

"...a direct assault on Pakistan's constitutionally guaranteed right to access information…it's outrageous that authorities are either unable to find or too frightened to name those powerful enough to orchestrate the blocking of news distribution".

On 19th April, it was reported that Geo TV was back on the air after talks with the military and agreeing to demands to change its political coverage.

Journalists sign petition against freedom of expression restrictions

More than 50 media professionals, including editors, columnists, media personalities and media freedom organisations in Pakistan, signed a petition in April 2018 against the ongoing curtailment of freedom of expression in the country. The repression has included news articles being pulled off media websites in Pakistan; the removal of online editions of published articles; and one media house even asked its anchors to stop doing live shows. The petition stated that there has been a growing trend of news being “given” or injected into the media, rather than allowing free coverage of real news and events. 

Surveillance of journalist and human rights defenders

A new report entitled "Dangers of Digital Surveillance" by Bytes for All has found that mass surveillance of digital communications of journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) has resulted in self-censorship in Pakistan

Released in March 2018, the report maps out the underlying trends and challenges to freedom of expression and movement of journalists and HRDs due to digital surveillance. It also examines the roles of different actors involved in this process who are largely responsible for the growing self-censorship in Pakistan.

Shahzad Ahmad from Bytes for All said that:

"Too many violent crimes are being reported from all over the country against journalists and human rights defenders ranging from intimidation, killing, torture and enforced disappearances. Unfortunately, it is a prevalent culture of impunity where the perpetrators go scot-free and the victims do not get justice, resulting in self-censorship and an increased climate of fear".

The report calls on the legislature to revisit anti-privacy sections in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 and the Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013, which permit state institutions to carry out arbitrary and disproportionate interception of communications by journalists and human rights defenders.

Association

Local NGOs raised concerns in early March 2018 over a growing government crackdown on the aid sector.

Pakistan’s government has slapped punitive taxes on NGOs; threatened to shut down international organisations that do not meet opaque new registration requirements; and launched a separate graft investigation into the sector. 

The volatile environment has forced many local NGOs, dependent on donor funding, to reduce their services, says Syed Kamal Shah, who heads Rahnuma, the family planning NGO with a free health clinic in Bhagwal village, Pakistan’s Punjab province. Shah says his organisation can only accept funding from international NGOs whose registration has been approved by the government. But with only half of the 139 international NGOs in Pakistan so far granted approval, funding sources are increasingly limited

Critics see the government’s moves against NGOs as part of a larger crackdown targeting civil society. Mohammad Tahseen, convener of the Pakistan Civil Society Forum, says local NGO staff face frequent harassment when going about their work.

“The space for working in a free environment is fast shrinking as the government has started seeing the operations of all NGOs and INGOs through a security lens only”.