Mathal was arrested by the police who also claimed to have recovered anti-national pamphlets from his possession.
Interview & text by W. Tariq

 

Although it has a remarkably vibrant press, Pakistan only ranks at number eight on the CPJ’s 2019 Global Impunity Index that enlists countries where murders of journalists go unpunished. At least 65 journalists and media workers have been killed between 2009 and 2019. Those who survive, meanwhile, are often kidnapped, prosecuted, or driven out of their professions due to threats or dire consequences.

One such newsperson is Dulat Jan Mathal, an editor and publisher from Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), who was charged and detained in 2016 for supporting and giving coverage to local nationalists, and publishing anti-state materials.

He was released in 2018 after nearly two years in custody. The case, however, lingers on with the publications remaining shut. Voicepk.net interviewed Mathal to know his side of the story, his work, journalism in GB, and his future plans. Following are some of the excerpts of the interview.

When and where did you start your career in journalism?

I started publishing the monthly Urdu language Bang-e-Sahar in 2002. It was turned into a weekly publication in 2007, and daily in 2010 from GB. Besides, Baang weekly was also published from the port city in English. I also managed the Broshaal Times website.

The newspaper, through its reportage and editorials, gave adequate coverage to issues of public welfare, as well as continued exposing ‘the whole truth’ on government and bureaucracy’s incompetence and corruption.

Hence, GB’s disputed legal status, concerns due to its proximity with Azad Kashmir, and other burning issues for the region’s masses were highlighted both on national and international scale. Human rights violations in GB, the reasons for lack of health, education, poverty and illiteracy, and the loot and plunder saga continued to be covered in line with standards of real and ethical journalism.

Why were you charged for anti-state activities?

The coverage led to hostilities, and the authorities one way or the other wanted to silence me. To teach me and my paper a lesson, they decided to accuse me of treason and anti-state activities. Obstacles were gradually put in the way through a well-organized propaganda campaign. To suppress the dissenting views, advertisements were curbed, and outstanding dues of government advertising stopped. The press in Gilgit was ordered not to print the publication, whereas its website, www.bangesahar.net, had been blocked. I was put on fourth schedule of Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), and was supposed to take permission from a police officer, even for going to my own office.

The government was looking for something to overcome me, and on October 2, 2016, an FIR was lodged against me which included sections from the ATA. I was charged for editing and publishing Yaseene Brooshasky, a book by Abdul Hameed Khan, chairman Balawaristan National Front, a nationalist party in GB.

It should be noted that the mentioned book neither includes anything against national security nor is about politics. It was about the region’s language, history and culture.

I was in Islamabad when the case was registered against me. With the help of a friend, I got hold of a copy of the FIR, and managed to secure a transit bail. After reaching Gilgit on the 18th of the month, I was about to leave for the Anti Terrorism Court (ATC) when learned that the judge had left for Islamabad. Therefore, I approached the Chief Court Gilgit, which ordered me to present myself before the ATC on October 24.

On the 24th, police did not allow me to enter the court premises, and I voluntary presented myself for arrest. I was taken to the investigation wing. The next day, I was presented before an ATC judge, who remanded me into police custody until November 3.

Subsequently, a joint investigation team (JIT) began with the probe. I was subjected to continuous, inexplicable physical and mental torture – for 20 days – until November 14, when the court sent me to Gilgit district jail.

The police did not submit a challan for about a year, although it is mandated to submit it within 14 days. I submitted multiple bail pleas but to no avail. Neither did any trial take place. My bail application was finally approved by Chief Court Gilgit in September 2018.

Your name has been removed from fourth schedule. Why is the case still pending?

‘Tareekh pe tareekh’! Continuous hearings have drained me out mentally, psychologically and financially.

I have been accused of writing against the country’s national security, and giving space to nationalist parties. But my argument is that federal parties were given more coverage than nationalists.

If one is to be linked to a party based on the coverage, then I should be made the chairman of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) or Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Journalists are (supposed to be) apolitical. If giving coverage to nationalists is prohibited, then why were these parties not banned? Why were they allowed to hold public rallies and programmes?

This points to curbs on press freedom in GB…

In essence, there is a question mark on the freedom of press in GB. The higher ups don’t want their corrupt practices to be surfaced. Any journalist with integrity cannot turn a blind eye to something that is legally or morally wrong. When someone raises a voice against the injustice, they distribute certificates of ‘ghaddari’ or treason, to hide their fallacies. By acting on the expression, ‘Na rahe ga baans, na baje gi bansuri,– (they will make an example out of us to crush all dissent).

Did anyone support you and your family during your detention?

I remained in jail for almost two years. During this time, everyone including GB’s civil society, journalist bodies and people from other walks of life, were kept from raising a voice in my support. Yet, some members of the fraternity, disregarding the consequences, spoke for my release at every forum. I am thankful to Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists’ (PFUJ) Afzal Butt and The Express Tribune for the efforts. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) highlighted my issue, which is why my case was also mentioned in a UN report.

But, unfortunately, not even a single paper from my region dared to publish any story calling for my release.

During my detention, my friends were not allowed to see me. They were warned of consequences if they did so. Only my family was there for me. My children and spouse were looked after by my relatives.

What are your plans for the future – will you return to journalism?

I want to resume the publication of Bang-e-Sahar. It may make a re-entry as soon as I receive the pending advertising dues – nearly Rs7 million. However, I have no expectations from the current government.

Readers have often complained that its closure has left a void, and that they are expecting the paper’s return to the market soon.