Authorities in Pakistan continue harassment of journalists, persecution of activists and stifling of protests

Authorities in Pakistan continue harassment of journalists, persecution of activists and stifling of protests
Security forces block an opposition protest in Islamabad in October 2022 (Photo: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

The state of civic space is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Ongoing concerns include the criminalisation, threats and harassment of human rights defenders and the failure to hold perpetrators to account. There have also been efforts to intimidate and censor journalists and media outlets, silence online expression as well as restrictions and attacks on peaceful protests, especially by ethnic Pashtun minorities and women’s rights activists.

Pakistan prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose government came to power after removing former PM Imran Khan in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April 2021, has rejected calls by Khan to hold a general election. In August 2022, police charged Imran Khan under the country's anti-terror laws, after he delivered a speech in which Pakistani officials say he threatened police officials and the judiciary. Khan has held a series of high-profile rallies and on 3rd November 2022 he was shot in the leg during a protest march. One person was killed and several others injured.

In September 2022, European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) called on Pakistan to undertake timely reforms and legislative changes on human rights issues including the swift adoption of laws against torture and enforced disappearances and to implement laws protecting journalists and eliminating obstacles to the work of civil society organisations and media.

Numerous civil society groups including CIVICUS and the Asian Legal Resource Centre have submitted reports to the UN Human Rights Council ahead of its Universal Periodic Review at the end of January 2023.

Despite this, civil society has documented the criminalisation of journalists for their reporting and the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders. Further, the authorities have continued to arrest and use excessive force against opposition protests as well as around the Gwadar port protests.


Ongoing criminalisation of journalists

Journalists are regularly targeted in Pakistan for their reporting, with some facing arrest and detention while others have been subject to threats and physical attacks.

On 19th August 2022, police in southeastern Sindh province’s Thatta district arrested journalist Ilyas Samoo, a reporter for the privately owned daily newspaper Awami Awaz and president of the local Bandar Press Club. It is believed he was targeted in retaliation for his work.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the police accused the journalist of carrying an illegal weapon in violation of the Sindh Arms Act. His brother told CPJ that he believed authorities had targeted Samoo in retaliation for his reporting on flood-affected areas in Thatta district and said that, shortly before his brother’s arrest, the journalist had received a threatening call and text message warning him to stop that reporting.

Samoo’s reporting alleged that authorities had a lacklustre response to the floods, which killed at least 239 people. If charged and convicted of carrying an illegal weapon, Samoo could face up to 14 years in prison and an unspecified fine, according to the law.

On 22nd August 2022, Pakistani state authorities detained BOL News journalist Jameel Farooqui in Karachi following accusations of ‘anti-state’ statements posted to his YouTube channel.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Farooqui was charged following a First Information Report (FIR) registered on 21st August 2022 by magistrate Aimal Khan at Ramna Police Station, under several sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PCC) relating to defamation and the obstruction of public servants.

Farooqui had commented on the treatment of PTI leader Shahbaz Gill by law enforcement, alleging that members of the Islamabad Capital Police (ICP) sexually and physically assaulted Gill during his 9th August arrest. The police denied the accusations.

The FIR stated that Farooqui’s reporting on police conduct was tantamount to interference with the case. Farooqui, a YouTuber and anchorperson at BOL News, was arrested the same night while leaving the BOL news office.

On 31st August 2022, Farooqui was released from Adiala Jail after he made bail with a surety bond.

Journalist Waqar Satti is facing investigations for blasphemy and defamation. If charged and convicted of blasphemy, Satti faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine; convictions for defamation carry up to two years in prison and a fine.

In August 2022, police in the Punjab city of Rawalpindi filed a first information report, a document opening an investigation, into Satti, a senior political correspondent for the privately owned broadcaster Geo News.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the investigation stems from a since-deleted video posted on Satti’s Twitter account on 26th August, which presented quotes attributed to former Prime Minister Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, according to those sources. The video, which CPJ reviewed, attributed quotes to Khan that are critical of Islam and the Quran. Satti often posts political commentary on his Twitter account, where he has about 75,000 followers. Authorities opened their investigation after receiving a complaint from a PTI party member in the Punjab provincial assembly.

Satti told CPJ that, after posting the video on 26th August, he received a number of threats on social media from people who appeared to be PTI supporters, who threatened to kill him and his family.

Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s programme director said: “The launching of a blasphemy and defamation investigation into Pakistani journalist Waqar Satti is an unacceptable abuse of power by Punjab provincial authorities”.

Authorities detain brother of slain journalist

On 19th November 2022, CPJ reported that Pakistan army officials detained Zameer Khan, brother of slain journalist Hayatullah Khan, in the town of Mir Ali, in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

It is believed he was detained in retaliation for the family’s continued search for justice in Hayatullah’s case. Hayatullah was abducted in December 2005 after he reported that an Al-Qaeda leader had been killed by a U.S.-made missile, contradicting information released by the Pakistan government. He was found killed in June 2006, with five or six bullet wounds and one hand manacled in handcuffs typically used by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

On 3rd December 2022, the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) raised concerns at the detention of Zameer Khan and urged an independent inquiry into his detention and whether it is related to his family’s efforts in courts to obtain the secret investigation report on Hayatullah’s kidnapping and murder.

BOL media outlet broadcast suspended for coverage of opposition

In Sept 2022, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) blocked the transmission of BOL News and BOL Entertainment, revoking the broadcasting licence of BOL’s parent company.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on 5th September, PEMRA announced it would suspend the transmission of BOL News and BOL Entertainment after reviewing legal and government records. The regulatory agency said the media organisation had failed to obtain an appropriate security clearance from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry.

At the same meeting, PEMRA announced the cancellation of the channel licence of BOL parent company M/s Labbaik Private Limited. The licences expired in December 2021, however, M/s Labbaik had not applied for a renewal.

BOL News denounced the blocking of the broadcast, stating on the outlet’s website that BOL has been punished for broadcasting content about former PM Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party.

However, on 16th Sept 2022 the Sindh High Court (SHC) ordered PEMRA to restore the broadcasting of BOL News.

On 31st October 2022, the transmission of BOL News TV was again blocked throughout Pakistan without any reason or justification. The channel was at the time covering the PTI’s long march led by former prime minister Imran Khan to demand early elections.

PEMRA has long been the enforcer of the government’s intensifying campaign of censorship and repression of the media. It has ordered television channels to shut down for airing criticism of the government, terminated live interviews of opposition leaders and blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programmes.

Punjab province bans film about transgender people

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), on 17th November 2022, the government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, banned “Joyland,” the story of a young man in Pakistan who falls in love with a transgender woman. The film, which has received both critical acclaim and popular praise abroad, is Pakistan’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards. Pakistan’s federal government had earlier banned the film for containing “highly objectionable material” and for going against “morality and decency.” However, the federal government rescinded its ban and the film was scheduled for nationwide release in November 2022. Less than 24 hours after this decision, the Punjab government blocked the film’s release in the province.

Discrimination and violence against transgender people is common despite provisions in Pakistani law protecting transgender people. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court called on all provincial governments to recognise the rights of transgender people, and in 2018, parliament passed a law that broadly protects trans people’s rights. According to HRW, the Punjab authorities’ Joyland ban comes as anti-transgender rhetoric and incitement to violence have increased in tandem with recent efforts by some politicians to amend the 2018 legislation.


Ongoing persecution of human rights defender Muhammad Ismail and family

Human rights defender Muhammad Ismail and his family have continued to face persecution from the authorities. Most recently, in December 2022, the government brought trumped up charges against him under section 9 (glorification of an offence), section 10 (cyber terrorism) and section 11 (hate speech) of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.

Muhammad Ismail, the father of women’s human rights defender Gulalai Ismail, has been subject to judicial harassment since 2019 and has also been detained. Muhammad Ismail has been targeted due to his own work and the human rights work of his daughter, who was forced to flee Pakistan in 2019, fearing serious risks to her life.

He is also facing charges related to sedition and criminal conspiracy under the Penal Code and for offences under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) for allegedly financing terrorism, publishing and disseminating anti-State material and aiding and abetting terrorist offences.

In September 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued an opinion. Among the key findings of the UN WGAD was that the arrest and detention of Muhammad Ismail was arbitrary, falling within categories I (without sufficient legal basis), II (for exercising his rights guaranteed under the ICCPR), III (being denied of his right to fair trial), and V (for his work as human rights defender and his relation to his daughter, Gulalai Ismail).

Further, his hearings have faced frequent delays and adjournments, causing him tremendous hardship. He has made more than 160 appearances in court since the charges were made against him.

Three years since detention of human rights defender Idris Khattak

It has been more than three years since human rights defender and political activist Idris Khattak was forcibly disappeared when his car was intercepted near the Swabi Interchange of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on 13th November 2019 by four unidentified men in plain clothes. He was kept in solitary confinement for two years and one month.

In December 2021, a secret military court tried him under Pakistan’s Official Secrets Act. And sentenced him to 14 years’ “rigorous imprisonment” on trumped up charges of espionage after anonymous sources claimed he had provided sensitive information to a “foreign intelligence agency.” He was then transferred to Adiala Central Jail.

According to Amnesty International, his family is yet to receive any official notification of his sentence. An appeal has been filed in the Islamabad High Court.

Khattak had worked to defend the rights of the Pashtun minority in north-west Pakistan, including documenting enforced disappearances.

UN human rights experts at the time of his sentencing said his imprisonment was “an attack against the human rights community in Pakistan and sends a chilling message to civil society activists monitoring and reporting on alleged violations committed by the military and security forces or with their consent or acquiescence, such as systematic or widespread enforced disappearances.”

Pashtun leader booked on terrorism charges

In October 2022, the police charged Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) chief Manzoor Pashteen under sections of terrorism for “criticising heads and generals of the Pakistan Army” during a speech at the Asma Jahangir Conference.The case was registered under Sections 124A, 149, 305 PPC and Anti-Terrorism Act, 1977-II-X.

The session on ‘Reluctance to Criminalise Enforced Disappearance and Arbitrary Detentions’ was also attended by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, activist Sammi Deen Baloch and former chief minister of Balochistan and chairperson of the Balochistan National Party, Mengal Akhtar Jan Mengal, among others.

During his speech, Pashteen had named national institutions behind the killings of people in former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and said that “the new regime targeted and terrorised every journalist, individual and group that followed independent thinking”.

This is not the first time Manzoor Pashteen has been targeted.In March 2018, criminal cases were filed against him and four other PTM leaders for ‘provoking with intent to cause riot’ and ‘promoting enmity between different groups’ under sections 153 and 153a of Pakistan’s criminal code. In January 2020, he was arbitrarily arrested in Peshawar for criticising government policies based on a speech he gave in Bannu.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has mobilised nationwide in recent years against human rights violations against the ethnic Pashtun people. Due to this, many of the PTM leaders have been targeted with harassment and arrests while protests by the PTM have been disrupted with restrictions, arrests and excessive force.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests by the opposition PTI party disrupted

Following the assassination attempt against former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in November 2022, his party Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) held nationwide protests that were met in some locations with arrests and excessive force by the authorities.

In Rawalpindi’s Faizabad Interchange, on 4th November 2022, Islamabad police intermittently fired tear gas shells to disperse protesters in the area, who resorted to stone-pelting the police and Frontier Corps (FC). Several PTI protesters were arrested.

In Karachi on 5th November 2022, police resorted to tear gas and baton charges on PTI protesters, including women. The police also rounded up a number of protesters, thwarting the party’s attempt to converge outside the Karachi Press Club.

In Peshawar, protesters gathered at and blocked the Motorway Interchange. They shouted slogans against the federal government and in favour of Khan. In Quetta, party workers protested at the Mannan Chowk where provincial leaders were also present. In Hyderabad, supporters were protesting at the Haider intersection, while protesters also gathered in Tharparkar's Kashmir intersection.

Arrests and use of tear gas around Gwadar protests

In December 2022, a two month long protest by the Haq Do Tehreek (HDT), a local movement, escalated in the Chinese-run port city of Gwadar when police tried to push them away.

The protesters that were blocking a key expressway were demanding a reduction in security checkpoints in the area, an end to illegal fishing, which has depleted their own resources, and an ease on curbs on informal border trade with Iran.

The provincial government of Balochistan then imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in Gwadar for one month that prohibits the gathering of five or more people. The police then rounded up some 100 protesters for defying the ban. There were also reports of tear gas being used against protesters after they had put up barricades on the road leading towards the port. Some protesters had allegedly hurled rocks at the police complex of DIG Makran Range before burning its main gate.

Once a small fishing village, Gwadar now sits at the heart of a vast infrastructure expansion of road, rail and port networks in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $65 billion component in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. According to the China Project, many claim that they have not seen any benefits from the major Chinese-funded development projects, while increased security measures in the area have stymied their way of life.