September 21st, 2021
By Asra Haque
On Monday, September 20, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) informed the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that it had decided to withdraw its inquiry against former chair of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Absar Alam, conceding that initiating the probe was a mistake.
This occurred during a hearing into a petition filed by Alam against a call-up notice served to him by the FIA on the complaint of a lawyer associated with the Insaf Lawyers Forum (which has ties to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party), who had accused Alam of making anti-state remarks on social media. The former PEMRA Chair is known to criticize Pakistan’s military
Additional Attorney-General Qasim Wadud further requested the court to dispose of the case as the inquiry itself had ceased, however, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah stated that the matter was still pending and fixed the case with similar petitions against the FIA for September 27.
During the hearing, Justice Minallah remarked that the FIA should only serve notices “when its officials learn how to exercise this power” and that harassing a citizen in such a manner would have detrimental effects on society. The court further observed that freedom of expression is a basic human right, which the government itself must protect and guarantee to its citizens.
Alam is among a string of social media commentators and critics who have been slapped with multiple charges, including sedition and defaming the state and its institutions to name a few. Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) also expressed concern regarding the alleged false charges levied against the former PEMRA chief as well as several other independent journalists and human rights defenders, noting that the practice indicated an underlying pattern of a systemic stifling of journalists’ right to freedom of expression.
On April 20, 2021, Alam suffered a gunshot wound when an unidentified assailant fired upon him in broad daylight during a walk in a park near his home. While a first information report (FIR) was filed under section 324 (attempt to murder), no arrests as in many cases of violence perpetrated against journalists and commentators have yet to be made.
Although the FIA admitting its folly in launching an inquiry against him is a small win for his right to freedom of expression, Alam feels that it is far from over.
“Our country is turning into a fascist state, anything can happen,” he posited. “Yes, the FIA admitted its mistake, but the real problem are the “hidden elements” that pressured the FIA to lodge this case against me and then made it the scapegoat when they realized they could not wiggle their way out of this.”
Alam also criticized the FIA and other institutions for giving in to the machinations of these “elements” and harassing the public with false cases and call-up notices on their directions. He held that if a person has said something against the state, then the state should be the complainant rather than random individuals that decide to press treason and sedition charges against that person, as was in his case.
“Are those individuals the state? Are department officials the state? Or is it something bigger?” he queried, vocalizing his hope that the courts would demand a clarification in this regard as well.
Alluding to others like him who have been ensnared in a series of false cases for speaking up about or against unlawful and unconstitutional developments, policies and actions, Alam stated that harassment is just one facet of their troubles.
“Our time is wasted, we are under mental stress and wracked with anxiety. Some people’s lives are in ruins. They have lost their jobs or are unable to find employment because of the cases against them… they are not allowed on TV channels or to publish their columns in newspapers anymore,” he said, adding that digital media perhaps is the last bastion for free speech. However, even dissenters who primarily use social media or operate YouTube channels are cowed into silence when they are shot at, or when they are assaulted in their homes or illegally picked up. “This practice cannot go on in the Twenty First Century. And if anyone thinks that they can lord over us like the British centuries ago… if they think this is North Korea, then we are ready and willing to struggle against them with all our might. We are not North Koreans, we are Pakistanis.”
Alam also took a moment to express his utmost gratitude to the Journalist Defense Committee (JDC), constituted by the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) to extend free legal aid to journalists.
“They do not charge a penny and handle all court proceedings, which was a major help to our struggle for the safeguarding of our fundamental rights,” he stated, adding that the only way to improve society is when all segments of society – lawyers, upright judges, journalists, civil society activists, politicians and other citizens – join hands to walk the straight path to truth and justice.