Pakistani authorities are investigating five prominent journalists and a blogger for displaying the photo of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s on social media during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan last month.
A confidential letter by the Cybercrime Wing of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on March 13 said that the organization had launched inquiries against journalists Matiullah Jan, Murtaza Solangi, Azaz Syed, Ammar Masood, and Umer Cheema for disrespecting the Saudi leader during his visit on February 17 and 18. The letter also names exiled blogger Ahmad Waqass Goraya and four Islamist groups opposed to Saudi Arabia.
“These activists displayed the picture of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on their social media profile DPs [Display Photos] which conveyed a very disrespectful message to the visiting dignity,” the letter said.
Sources in the FIA confirmed to RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the letter was authentic. Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn also said that sources within the FIA had independently confirmed the authenticity of the letter.
"A targeted social media campaign was planned/executed against the [crown prince's] visit, during which [a] few social media activists and groups remained particularly consistent/active till the very last day of the visit," the letter noted.
Last October, Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul after entering the Saudi consulate. After initial denials, Riyadh confirmed that the dissident journalist was inside its consulate. Saudi Arabia, however, has denied the country’s crown prince ordered or was involved in the murder.
Solangi, one of the journalists named in the letter, reacted strongly. "This is preposterous,” he told Gandhara. “It looks like the Imran Khan administration is trying to appease its news bosses, the Saudis.”
He said that inquiries ordered in the letter violated Pakistani laws and international conventions and thus amounted to killing the freedom of expression. “Media in Pakistan was already muted and silenced, and this is a fresh attempt to make Pakistan look like an appendage of the Saudi monarchy,” he said.
Masood, another journalist named in the letter, questioned whether Pakistani journalists would now be punished for changing their display photos. “Freedom of expression is under real threat in Pakistan,” he wrote on Twitter.
Global press freedom watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the move. “Pakistan's FIA should stop harassing journalists over social media posts,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “Is there any wonder why journalists wave the flag of Jamal Khashoggi? He was one of them, murdered for his work.”
Amnesty International Deputy South Asia Director Omar Waraich also questioned the official probe against the journalists. “They [the FIA] say honoring a murdered journalist is disrespectful to the murderer,” he wrote on Twitter.
In the message sent to the FIA, Netherlands-based blogger Goraya said he will continue his campaign. “I am a Pakistani citizen and I am fighting for democracy and rule of law in Pakistan,” he wrote in the text message, which he said was sent to FIA officials. “We want a Pakistan free from fear and terror and a Pakistan where all citizens are equal.”
In January 2017, Goraya, an IT consultant, disappeared for three weeks along with four other secular activists in Pakistan. Human rights campaigners then blamed Pakistani intelligence agencies for detaining them. Pakistani authorities, however, denied holding the activists.
Currently, Pakistan is ranked 139th out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Journalists and activists in the country complain of censorship and rapidly declining space for freedom of expression with the civilian and military authorities seeking to control the press and social media.