Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is accusing Pakistani government officials of inciting a “violent smear and hate campaign” on social media against a columnist with the Urdu-language services of the British broadcaster BBC.
The week-old campaign against Asma Shirazi “is being conducted by supporters of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI)…who have evolved into a formidable government weapon for intimidating critical journalists,” the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said in statement on October 26.
RSF said the campaign was triggered by comments made by government officials about Shirazi’s latest weekly column, dated October 19, in which she expressed concerns about Pakistan’s deteriorating economic situation and the lack of a response from the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
In a tweet posted the same day, Commerce Minister Hammad Azhar accused Shirazi of making “pathetic insinuations.”
“Asma, sister, you should directly join the PML-N,” he wrote, referring to the main opposition party.
At a press conference two days later, Shahbaz Gill, the prime minister’s special assistant for political communication, accused the journalist of crossing “ethical limits” and of bias, alleging that she has “good ties” with PML-N deputy leader Maryam Nawaz, according to the Dawn newspaper.
“By publicly smearing Asma Shirazi’s work in this way, without any grounds, the government’s representatives clearly orchestrated the hate campaign that followed their statements,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“This type of harassment is unworthy of a democratic government and must stop,” he added.
Shirazi was a recipient of the prestigious international Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2014.
In January, she was one of 10 journalists working for BBC Urdu and the Urdu-language service of the London-based Independent newspaper who were subjected to online hate campaigns and death threats.
In August 2020, a group of Pakistani women journalists issued a statement denouncing a coordinated campaign of online attacks against them.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries on RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.