Islamabad, Pakistan – A court in Islamabad has ordered the release of journalist Shahid Aslam on bail in a case related to the alleged leak of tax data for former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and his family.
Aslam, a reporter with Bol News, was arrested last week in the eastern city of Lahore by the Federal Investigation Agency, after which he was moved to Islamabad.
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Aslam was charged with sharing information regarding personal tax details of General Bajwa and his family with the news website FactFocus, which published it in November, days before the army chief’s retirement.
Aslam denied that he was behind the leak.
The FactFocus report accused Bajwa and his family of amassing assets worth nearly $52m and presented official tax records and wealth statements to substantiate the allegations.
Aslam’s arrest was condemned by media and civil rights groups, who accused the government of pressuring the media into silence. The Committee to Protect Journalists criticised the arrest.
“The arrest of reporter Shahid Aslam underscores the dangerous environment for journalists in Pakistan,” Beh Lih Yi, its Asia programme coordinator, said in a statement.
“Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Aslam and respect his right to privacy and the confidentiality of his sources as guaranteed under the country’s journalist safety law,” she said.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the arrest not only restricted Aslam’s freedom of expression, but “such tactics set the dangerous precedent of obstructing the work of investigative journalists”.
This month, Human Rights Watch warned, “Space for free expression and dissent in Pakistan is rapidly shrinking.”
“Pakistan’s politicians are locked in a power struggle in which a free media and vibrant civil society are the casualties,” it said.
Pakistan was ranked 157 out of 180 countries on the 2022 press freedom index, published annually by Reporters Without Borders. It represented a decline of 12 positions from the 2021 rankings.
Islamabad-based lawyer Aftab Alam, an expert on media laws, said, “Sedition laws in other countries are being removed, but we still use it.”
“This is a legacy of colonial-era laws, and repeatedly we have seen their usage in the name of national interests or to prevent so-called fake news,” he told Al Jazeera.
“These actions by authorities are a way to control the masses,” he said. “Our laws require reforms.”