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Rights Groups Warn Of 'Alarming' Surge In Harassment Of Journalists In Pakistan

Journalists protest against the seizure of a Pakistani journalist in Islamabad in July.
Journalists protest against the seizure of a Pakistani journalist in Islamabad in July.

Pakistani and international rights groups and media watchdogs are warning of increased police and judicial harassment of journalists who criticize or question the country's authorities on social media.

“This harassment must stop,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement on September 17 after three Pakistani journalists faced “arbitrary accusations such as inciting rebellion, treason, and anti-Pakistan activities.”

Those journalists targeted in recent days included Bilal Farooqi, a news editor at the English-language Express Tribune newspaper, who was detained in Karachi on the evening of September 11.

Farooqi, who has posted messages on Facebook and Twitter regarded as critical of the military, was interrogated at the police station before being released on his lawyer’s personal guarantee the next day.

The police were acting on a complaint filed by a member of the public accusing him of “inciting citizens to rebel against the military” and “inciting sectarian hatred” -- an accusation that Farooqi said could put his life in danger because it could be exploited by extremist religious groups.

Also on September 11, police in Punjab Province opened an investigation into journalist Absar Alam for suspected “sedition” and “treason,” acting on a complaint filed by a lawyer accusing him of posting “highly inappropriate” comments on social media.

Alam, who used to head the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, has criticized Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army.

“The alarming increase in such actions against journalists confirms that the government is bent on muzzling freedom of expression,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) tweeted earlier this week.

Meanwhile, a journalist working for Samaa TV said on Twitter on September 14 that he was the target of a complaint by the police in Rawalpindi accusing him of “anti-Pakistan” posts and “propagating against the Pakistan army on social media.”

In recent weeks, Asad Ali Toor tweeted articles about alleged corruption involving Asim Saleem Bajwa, a retired army general who now heads the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, a package of infrastructural development projects.

The accusations against Farooqi, Alam, and Toor -- which they reject -- “are baseless and constitute judicial harassment aimed at suppressing all criticism of the government, in particular, on social media,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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