Pakistan’s Hypocrisy on Press Freedom

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Pakistani police escort Mir Shakilur Rehman to court following his arrest in Lahore, Pakistan, March 13, 2020.
© 2020 K.M. Chaudhry/AP Photo

Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted there is no media crackdown in Pakistan, and that he and his government are far more “unprotected” than the media. Mir Shakilur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media organization in Pakistan, and who has been in pretrial detention since March 12, 2020, would likely disagree.

Rehman had been arrested in Lahore by the government’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption agency, on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. Rehman, 63, had requested bail on grounds of ill-health, but on July 8, the Lahore High Court denied his request. The Supreme Court Bar Association and the Pakistan Bar Council, the top elected bodies of lawyers in the country, criticized the ruling as “disappointing and painful.”

The NAB has been widely criticized as being used for political purposes and it’s evident that the charges against Rehman were politically motivated. Rehman’s ordeal epitomizes the fast-shrinking space for dissent and criticism in Pakistan.

The Jang Group alleges that since 2018, its reporters, editors, and producers have received more than a dozen threatening letters for its critical reporting of the NAB. GEO TV, a private television channel that is part of Jang Group, was temporarily forced off the air and audience access was restricted as punishment for editorials criticizing the government.

Pakistani authorities frequently use prolonged pretrial detention as a form of punishment and intimidation. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has stated that “pretrial detention should be an exception and as short as possible.”

In Pakistan, arbitrary arrest, detention, and baseless criminal prosecutions are used as instruments of press censorship. So long as Rehman and others in the media are punished for practicing journalism, Prime Minister Khan’s statement that “I don’t mind criticism” is not worth the paper it won’t be printed on.