19 January 2023
South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, has condemned the arrest of journalist Shahid Aslam in connection with leaks of the tax records of former army chief General Qamar Bajwa (retired).
The journalist was granted bail in the case by a court in Islamabad on January 18. Shahid Aslam, a special correspondent of BOL News, was arrested without any notice on the night of January 13, SAHR said in its statement. He was arrested for allegedly passing on the tax data of the former army chief to Fact Focus, a platform for investigative journalism. He is accused of bribing Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) employees for the purposes of collecting information for which no evidence has not been found so far.
On January 14, a local court in Islamabad approved a two-day physical remand for Shahid Aslam. It was claimed that FIA officers put pressure on the detained journalist to reveal the password to his laptop, but he refused.
On January 17, Shahid Aslam applied for bail on the basis that he is not named in the case registered on the leaking tax record details of the former army chief, by the Anti-Corruption circle of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Aslam was granted bail on January 18 but he has yet to be released, due to a delay in the submission of surety bonds.
SAHR said it learned that it is Ahmad Noorani, a US-based Pakistani journalist who wrote the article titled “Army Chief Qamar Bajwa’s family became billionaires within six years” published in November 2022 on Fact Focus.
At the hearing, the FIA prosecutor requested a two-day physical remand for Shahid Aslam stating that he sent data outside Pakistan from the FBR. However, so far there has not been any evidence.
“Shahid Aslam’s arrest without notice clearly indicates the risk entailed for journalists and media personnel in Pakistan, specifically those who have shared a critique on the military,” SAHR said. It was only in October 2023, Arshad Sharif, the Pakistani investigative journalist fled the country for being critical about the military, was killed in Kenya, two months after he left Pakistan.
Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill 2021 of Pakistan guarantees the rights of journalists and media professionals including the right to privacy and confidentiality of sources.
“However, the bill is yet to be enacted despite repeated demands of journalists that it should be implemented to protect fundamental rights of journalists.”
SAHR has also learned of the stay order of the Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) order to FIA in May 2022, where the IHC’s Chief Justice Minallah remarked that the FIA or any other authority should inform the journalist’s organization or the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) about the case before they arrest them.
SAHR called upon the relevant authorities of the Government of Pakistan to immediately release Shahid Aslam. “The Government of Pakistan must end harassment of journalists and respect the freedom of expression of the people as enshrined in the constitution,” Dr Roshmi Goswami, Co-chairperson of SAHR, said in the statement.