March 26, 2021

Staff report


In a letter addressed to the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva, Khalil-ur-Rehman Hashmi, the United Nations Human Rights Council brought to attention, the alleged false charges against a number of independent journalists and human rights defenders in Pakistan, and the underlying pattern of a systemic stifling of journalists’ right to freedom of expression.

The document, which was created with inputs from Voicepk.net, made mention of several journalists who, due to their reporting, were subjected to intimidation, harassment and suppression tactics.

Asad Ali Toor is an Islamabad-based journalist who has reported on the Armed Forced and on the presidential reference filed against Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court. He was charged with defamation, inciting public mischief, hate speech, committing offences against the dignity of a person, and distributing unlawful online content on September 14, 2020. The contents of the allegedly unlawful material he had been accused of were never disclosed to him.

Ajeeb Ali Lakho is a Sindh-based journalist associated with the newspapers Koshish, Aman and Jurat with a career spanning 25 years. He was booked in 21 separate FIRs following the publication of his report on the involvement of some senior police officials in an illegal diesel trade with Iran, and was charged with a total of 42 offences under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), the Sindh Arms Act 2013, the Control of Narcotic Substances Act 1997, and the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997. All charges were subsequently dropped after Lakho petitioned the Sindh High Court in 2019.

Rana Arshad Sulehri is an Islamabad-based journalist who reported on the Armed Forces and former military dictator General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf. On October 1, 2020, Sulehri was notified to appear before the FIA with no details as to the allegations made against him, and his house was subsequently raided by a team of FIA officials a week later. The agency retracted its notice after Sulehri filed a petition with the High Court, but issued a renewed one on October 20, 2020, without (once again) mentioning the allegations levied against him. On November 2, 2020, the FIA admitted to the court that it had no incriminating evidence against Sulehri.

Bilal Farooqi is an Editor of the Express Tribune and a rights defender, who had reported on enforced disappearances. He was charged under defamation, making statements to incite public mischief, hate speech and committing offences against the dignity of a person on September 9 for sharing ‘highly objectionable material’ and ‘highly provocative posts’ on his social media accounts. Like Toor, no explanation as to what was found to be objectionable and provocative was ever given. On September 11, he was arrested by a policeman and two plainclothes men – he is currently on bail.

Mian Dawood is a court reporter and lawyer who also has a YouTube channel where he discusses politics. On October 24, 2020 he was summoned by the FIA for proceedings launched against him by the agency’s Cyber Crime Reporting Center, Islamabad, however he was never informed of what charges were being pressed against him. His petition challenging this summons was rejected by the Lahore High Court citing a lack of jurisdiction.

Amir Mir is a Lahore-based journalist working for Googly News Channel. On August 30, 2020, he was issued a notice by the FIA to declare his source for information he used in reports uploaded to his YouTube channel. He was also made to appear before the FIA on separate occasions for reporting on the arrest of a leading opposition figure, and was neither informed of the charges levied against him nor provided any justification for police interrogation.

Absar Alam is an Islamabad-based journalist and former Chair PEMRA. On September 11, 2020, an FIR was registered against him for abetting mutiny, sedition, defamation, making statements inciting public mischief, and committing offences against the dignity of a person. The complaint (which was filed by a lawyer associated with the Insaf Lawyers Forum, which has ties to the ruling PTI party) made mention of his Twitter account through which he had previously reported on a corruption scandal. Alam has yet to be summoned to any investigative proceedings.

Fakhar Durrani is an Islamabad-based journalist for The News whose articles on the dual nationality of Federal Minister for Water Resources Faisal Vawda, which prompted the intervention by ECP and the Islamabad High Court. On October 2, 2020, Durrani was declared a ‘traitor’ and was accused of having links with the Indian intelligence Agency (RAW) in a programme broadcast on ARY. The channel is believed to be associated with Pakistan security institutions. The Islamabad High Court later ordered that “the responded restrain from harassing [Mr. Durrani]”.

Ahmad Noorani is a journalist for Fact Focus as well as a human rights. He was previously associated with The News, and published a series of critical reports on the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. He has faced a slate of acts of intimidation and harassment. Between 2014 to 2017, his relatives’ homes in his native city Bahawalpur were attacked once and raided six times by law enforcement agencies. On October 27, 2017, he was assaulted with iron rods by six unidentified men at Zero Point in Islamabad. On 27 August 2020, Noorani, his family and colleagues began receiving death threats from individuals associated with the Armed Forces after he published a report on the alleged offshore assets of former DGISPR Asim Saleem Bajwa. His pictures and names of his colleagues were also shared by a news channel believed to be associated the ISPR, and were accused of having ties with RAW. Noorani and his family have gone underground, and reports have emerged that he may be charged for treason soon.

Azhar ul Haq Wahid is a Lahore-based journalist previously associated with the Daily Khabrain, and also ran a Facebook page by the name of “Baaghi” (revolutionary), which is now no longer accessible. He had published stories on Gen. (Retd) Musharraf in early January, 2020. On January 15, 2020, his home was raided by about 30 men including a clerk of the FIA’s Cybercrime Wing, Lahore, while he was out on an errand. The officials reportedly abused his parents and confiscated a cellphone and two laptops. He was also given an undated notice from the FIA on the same day. On January 16, 2020, a case was registered against him for making statements inciting public mischief, hate speech and 20 committing offences against the dignity of a person while he was visiting the FIA office, and his CNIC and bank card confiscated. He was subsequently detained by the FIA for three days, during which he was reportedly labelled a traitor by the officials, and mistreated and tortured. From January 20, 2020, Wahid was held in solitary confinement in judicial custody for three months. He was granted bail by the Lahore High Court on March 27, 2020.

Gul Bukhari is journalist and a human rights defender, who has reported on the Armed Forces and its interference in the judiciary and politics. On June 5, 2018, Bukhari was abducted, allegedly by army officials, and was forced to flee Pakistan later that year. Between July and October 2020, a lawyer affiliated with the Gen. (Retd) Musharraf and security institutions issued three legal notices concerning Ms. Bukhari which were sent to the Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, the Director General of the FIA, Chair of the PTA, the Director of the FIA’s Cybercrime Wing Lahore, and Twitter. On October 20, 220, the same lawyer filed a 3-page complaint with the FIA against Bukhari in response to Tweets she posted about high-level Supreme Justices. She is currently still in exile.

Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Elina Steinerte, Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; and Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed their grave concern over the filing of meritless and false charges in order to intimidate journalists into silence. In particular, the UN representatives noted how these cases were filed against mentioned journalists after they had published works that exposed an alleged wrongdoing or rights violation, and that it exposed a pattern of censorship, overt control information, deterring other journalists from exercising their right to expression, and deliberate curbing of dissent in the country.

The letter observed that the Government of Pakistan had failed to fulfill its obligations to protect freedom of expression, as is required under 9, 14 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by Pakistan on June 23, 2010. It further requested that the government supplement details as to the basis of the arrests and charges brought against the aforementioned journalists, and what measures have been taken to ensure that journalists and human rights defenders are able to exercise their right to expression and dignity of work without the consequence of threats, or acts of intimidation and harassment against either themselves or their families.

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