Rights, press bodies slam Pakistan crackdown on ‘critical voices’

At least seven journalists and political commentators have been charged with sedition and other offences in the past week.

Pakistani photojournalists hold their cameras and shout slogans during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in Lahore on May 3, 2023
Pakistani photojournalists hold their cameras and shout slogans during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in Lahore [File: Arif Ali/AFP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Prominent rights and media watchdogs have expressed “extreme concern” after several Pakistani journalists and political commentators were charged with sedition earlier this week.

The individuals include former newspaper editor Shaheen Sehbai, political commentators Wajahat Saeed Khan, Moeed Pirzada, Sabir Shakir, two former army officers-turned-YouTubers Adil Raja and Syed Haider Raza Mehdi, and another person identified as Syed Akbar Hussain.

Apart from Hussain, whose details have not been provided by the police, the other six individuals are currently not living in Pakistan.

The charges against the seven are part of a continuing government crackdown on the supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan following his dramatic arrest on May 9 over a corruption case.

The arrest triggered deadly protests across Pakistan, during which government buildings and military properties were vandalised. The government is trying several of the accused under stringent military laws.

A first information report (FIR) filed against Sehbai, Khan, Raja and Mehdi on June 12 by the police in capital Islamabad accuses them of “abetting mutiny” and inciting people to attack army properties on May 9.

Two days later, similar cases were filed against Shakir, Pirzada and Hussain by the Islamabad police.

“At least seven journalists and commentators have been charged with offences against the state and anti-terror laws in the past four days,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Thursday.

The rights group said it was alarmed by Pakistan’s “crackdown on voices critical of the state and military”.

“The use of these laws to silence commentators and journalists is a violation of the right to freedom of expression,” it posted on Twitter.

Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, or RSF) also issued a statement on Wednesday, calling the police complaint against the seven individuals “ludicrous”.

“Make no mistake – the sole purpose of this ludicrous complaint, which arbitrarily associates the names of Wajahat Khan and Shaheen Sehbai with those of rebel ex-army officers, is to intimidate the two journalists into silence,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia Desk said in a statement.

In the past month, several Pakistani journalists were targeted for their criticism of the government’s crackdown on Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Imran Riaz Khan, a prominent YouTuber with millions of followers, has been missing since May 11. His family blames the state for his disappearance.

Another well-known journalist, Sami Abraham, was picked up by unidentified men late last month and was held captive for six days.

Khan’s speeches and statements have been banned on Pakistani television channels since March.

Last month, the country’s media regulatory body restricted news channels from giving airtime to “hate mongers, rioters, their facilitators and perpetrators” – an order that did not explicitly name Khan or his party.

The RSF last year ranked Pakistan 150 out of 180 countries on its press freedom list.

Source: Al Jazeera