April 17th, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
The United States Department of State has listed gross human rights violations committed against various groups, including against journalists in Pakistan, according to the annual Pakistan 2021 Human Rights Report released recently.
In the report, the State Department has painted a grim picture of human rights in Pakistan, citing numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, and suppression of media freedom and highlighted ‘pervasive corruption’ in politics and the government.
There was no respect for civil liberties in Pakistan, according to the report.
The report noted that law provides criminal penalties for official corruption but the government generally did not implement the law effectively and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government had come into power on the promise that it will end corruption but it could not take one case to logical end despite having the National Accountability Bureau on its side and spending millions of dollars in the name of unearthing offshore assets of politicians.
“Corruption was pervasive in politics and government, and various politicians and public office-holders faced allegations of corruption, including bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement,” according to the State Department.
The State Department said that there was lack of government accountability, and abuses, including corruption, often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among perpetrators, whether official or unofficial.
The authorities seldom punished government officials for reported human rights abuses or acts of corruption, it added.
Opposition members targeted in corruption probes
The report noted that the government continued its corruption investigations and prosecutions of opposition political party leaders during the year, with high-profile actions brought against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, former president Asif Ali Zardari, and senior members of the opposition parties, including the JUI-F.
But, it added, the opposition parties alleged that the prosecutions selectively targeted their leadership. On April 27, NAB filed a 5th case against former president and co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party Asif Ali Zardari as part of a probe into a multimillion-dollar banking scandal.
On May 18, citing an ongoing investigation, the Ministry of Interior placed Shehbaz Sharif (now prime minister) on the Exit Control List. Shehbaz continued to face several investigations.
The State Department has mentioned corruption allegations against the then PM’s Special Assistant, Asim Saleem Bajwa.
“On August 3, Lt-Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa resigned from his position as chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority due to media allegations he had amassed a family fortune linked to his positions in the military,” it noted.
The State Department added that reports of corruption in the judicial system persisted, including reports that court staff requested payments to facilitate administrative procedures. Lower courts reportedly remained corrupt, inefficient, and subject to pressure from higher-ranking judges as well as prominent, wealthy, religious, and political figures, according to the report.
Imran Khan’s government had promised to ensure justice, but it could not improve the conditions in the judiciary, neither could it end corrupt practices.
The State Department added that significant human rights issues in Pakistan also included credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals in another country, including killings, kidnappings, or violence; arbitrary interference with privacy and support to the Taliban.
Media restrictions and censorship
There were also serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and disappearances of journalists, censorship, and criminal defamation laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom including site blocking.
Journalists faced threats, harassment, and violence. The State Department has mentioned false cases and harassments faced by many journalists, in its report.
According to the report, both the military, through its media wing, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, enforced censorship.
Journalists alleged PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations, and media outlets claimed the government pressured stations to halt broadcasting of interviews with selected opposition political party leaders.
Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment, according to the State Department. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they had a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists.
According to observers, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation.
Media organisations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military, religious extremism, and abuse of blasphemy laws. Journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year, and PEMRA issued editorial directives to media outlets, according to the report.
Terrorism violence on the rise
The report noted that violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. “Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems, with terrorist violence exceeding that of the prior year,” the report said.
Terrorist and cross-border militant attacks against civilians, soldiers, and police caused hundreds of casualties. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups.
As of September 30, 2021, terrorism fatalities stood at 495, compared with 506 fatalities in all of 2020, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a database compiled by the public interest advocacy organization Institute for Conflict Management, which collects statistics on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia, the report noted.