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

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.