Prominent Pakistani journalist free after day-long disappearance

Government said Matiullah Jan, known for his criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military, was kidnapped outside a school.

Matiullah Jan
Matiullah Jan during an interview in 2019 with Reuters news agency at his office in Islamabad [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A prominent Pakistani journalist known for his criticism of the country’s powerful military is safe with his family 12 hours after he disappeared on Tuesday.

Police said Matiullah Jan was last seen outside a government school in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Tuesday morning.

Jan’s wife Kaneez Sughra, 42, earlier told Al Jazeera she heard sounds of a scuffle outside the school, but she had not thought seriously about it at the time.

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“I could hear that something was going on outside, but I couldn’t hear my husband’s voice… When I called him, he was not answering.”

Sughra later told Al Jazeera by telephone Jan had been released and was back with his family.

The circumstances of the journalist’s disappearance were not immediately clear late Tuesday.

Pakistani Information Minister Shibli Faraz acknowledged the abduction in a press conference held in Islamabad. Faraz was speaking after a weekly cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

“I assure you that, while I do not have all of the details, this much is clear that he was kidnapped,” said Faraz. “We will try our best that today we find out where he is and what steps be taken to recover him. It is obvious that this is the duty of the government, and the government will fulfill its duties.”

Threats from many actors

Journalists in Pakistan are under threat from a variety of actors, with rights groups decrying increasing government and military censorship, intimidation and harassment of journalists in recent years.

Rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Pakistan 145th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Since 1992, at least 61 Pakistani journalists have been killed in connection with their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“We are extremely concerned for the fate and wellbeing of Matiullah Jan,” said Amnesty International shortly after the reported disappearance.

“He has been the subject of physical attacks and harassment for his journalism. The authorities must establish his whereabouts immediately.”

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The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) demanded the government “immediately ensure the safe recovery of journalist Matiullah Jan”.

“We are deeply concerned at increasing attempts to control the media, suppress independent voices, and curb political dissent, thereby creating an environment of constant fear,” said Mehdi Hasan, HRCP’s chairperson.

“Matiullah Jan has stood courageously by the people of Pakistan striving to realise their constitutional and fundamental rights… Mr Jan’s abduction is an act of cowardice and warrants immediate redressal.”

Last year, an Al Jazeera investigation uncovered a sustained campaign of censorship through widespread distribution disruptions and intimidation in Pakistan, allegedly committed by Pakistan’s military and civilian governments.

On Tuesday, prominent Pakistani news show host Hamid Mir told Al Jazeera that a segment of his nightly show that reported on Jan’s abduction was “censored” before broadcast without explanation.  

Jan, known for his outspoken political commentary, had become increasingly critical of Prime Minister Khan’s government since 2018, when he resigned from hosting a news television talk show on Waqt News.

He has also singled out the country’s military, which has directly ruled the country for roughly half of its 73-year history since independence, for particular criticism, often using tongue-in-cheek YouTube videos to poke fun at senior military and civilian officials.

Last week, the country’s Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice to Jan over a tweet in which he had criticised the judiciary.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera