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Mir Shakilur Rehman (right) in a 1999 photo

Human rights and media freedom watchdogs are urging Pakistan to release from pretrial detention the owner and editor in chief of the country’s biggest independent media group.

Mir Shakilur Rehman of the Jang group of newspapers and TV stations was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore on March 12 by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in connection with allegations of tax evasion in a real-estate purchase 34 years ago.

The Jang group, which has been critical of the government and the activities of the NAB, rejected the allegations against Rehman and described his arrest as “an attack on the freedom of expression.”

Daniel Bastard, the head of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Asia-Pacific desk, said Rehman’s arrest is “not based on anything legal and is clearly harassment in order to bring the Jang group into line.”

The Pakistani authorities “have shown tremendous creativity in intimidating journalists who try to do their jobs independently,” Bastard said in a statement.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), called Rehman’s detention “just the latest case of harassment against Pakistan’s beleaguered media.”

“The space for dissent in Pakistan is shrinking fast, and anyone who criticizes government actions can become a target,” Adams added.

Pakistan’s media operate in “a climate of fear,” the New York-based watchdog said. “Media outlets are under pressure from authorities not to criticize the government.”

The statement also said that the NAB has been “widely criticized for being used for political purposes.”

Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Mir Shakilur Rehman owns several Pakistani news outlets, including Geo News. (file photo)

Pakistani authorities on March 12 arrested the owner and editor in chief of the country's biggest independent group of newspapers and TV stations in connection with allegations of tax evasion in a real-estate purchase 34 years ago.

Mir Shakilur Rehman was taken into custody in the eastern city of Lahore, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) said without providing details.

Rehman's Jang Group of Newspapers, which includes Geo TV, has been critical of the government, including the activities of the NAB.

In a statement released by Geo TV, the media group said the property in question was purchased "from a private party," not a government entity, and "all evidence of this was given to the NAB and legal requirements fulfilled, such as duty and taxes."

"This is an attack on the freedom of expression," said Rana Jawad, Geo News's news director.

The statement said the arrest would not stop its editorial staff from covering "any story that is on merit and at the same will include" responses from the NAB to maintain reporting balance.

Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed a more forceful crackdown on journalists, human rights workers, activists, and members of civil society.

Before his election in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan often said publicly he would have Rehman arrested if he came to power.

Based on reporting by AP and Geo TV

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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