Journalists in a northwestern Pakistani city have threatened to protest if authorities fail to withdraw a police case against two of their colleagues for covering a rally.
Members of the press club in Dera Ismail Khan, a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, say they have asked authorities to retract a police report identifying Sailab Mehsud, a contributor to RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, and local TV correspondent Zafar Wazir as having participated in a protest on December 8.
The police report, filed on the same day, alleged that they and nearly 20 others were chanting slogans against Pakistani state institutions and “inciting hatred and violence.”
Sailab and Wazir deny any wrongdoing. They say they were only covering the protest and were not participating in the event, organized by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which emerged this year in Pakistan’s western tribal Pashtun regions along Afghanistan’s border. Since February, the PTM has campaigned for security and rights for Pashtuns, Pakistan largest ethnic minority, whose homeland was the main theater for Islamabad's war on terrorism during the past 15 years.
Shakir Mehsud, a journalist in Dera Ismail Khan, said covering protests is not a crime.
“In our [press club] meeting today, we concluded that the state is wrong to pressure us to prevent us covering the PTM protests,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are journalists. We are neutral, and we are not part of a political party or an apolitical movement.”
Shakir said they have contacted colleagues across Pakistan to launch countrywide protests if authorities fail to retract the police report against Sailab and Wazir in the next three days. "The PTM has raised the issues related to our homeland, and we cannot ignore them," he said.
Hamza Mehsud, another journalist, said he witnessed the December 8 PTM protest and can testify that Sailab and Wazir were not part of the protest. “I was there and can tell you that these two were only involved in reporting,” he told Radio Mashaal.
“The government needs to take this FIR back,” he said, referring to the police’s First Information Report. Under Pakistani law, a FIR marks the formal opening of a criminal investigation. “This FIR is based on lies.”
But Waheed, a spokesman for the police in Dera Ismail Khan, told the BBC Urdu service that Sailab and Zafar were part of the PTM protest. He claimed that both had engaged in chanting slogans against the security forces.
Sailab, however, rejected the accusations. He said he only reported on the December 8 protest for Radio Mashaal.
"If they can prove that I and Zafar Wazir have raised any of the slogans that they accused us of raising, then they should hang us," he told the BBC Urdu Service. "We do not recognize this police report [as legitimate], which is why we will not apply for bail."
Pakistan has launched an apparent crackdown on the media coverage of the PTM. Last week, authorities ordered Internet service providers to block the website of Voice Of America's Urdu service. The websites of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal and VOA's Deewa Radio, Pashto-language services for Pakistan, have been sporadically blocked since October.
Pakistani media has extended little coverage to the PTM. In often noisy street protests and online campaigns, the PTM has blamed the military for human rights abuses in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other Pashtun regions where the military conducted its anti-terror sweeps. The PTM also blames the military for supporting and protecting some militant groups.
The military denies these accusations. Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military spokesman, recently told journalists that more than 200,000 Pakistani soldiers are based in FATA to "secure and control the militant violence.”
Wazir, the journalist blamed for participating in the PTM protest, said suppressing the coverage of Pakistanis demanding rights is not helping the country.
"If we have a truly independent media, everyone in the country will eventually be able to avail of their rights," he said.