A top lawyer body has offered free legal services to the country’s journalists amid increasing incidents of harassment and intimidation of reporters who have criticized the country’s government and powerful military.
On September 17, the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) announced free legal representation for all journalists and activists who are facing police investigations and court cases on charges of treason and working against the state.
“The media is being silenced ruthlessly, and young journalists are facing a wave of oppression,” Abid Saqi, vice chairman of the PBC, told opposition politicians at a conference in Islamabad. “Some people are lodging treason cases against journalists in various districts to persecute them to project the impression that anyone daring to speak up will be silenced.”
Saqi said the crackdown on journalists is unprecedented. “We will form watchdog committees to defend journalists free of cost in such cases across the country,” he said.
The announcement came the same day that global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on Islamabad to cease attempts to censor journalists who criticize or question the authorities on social media in Pakistan.
“This harassment must stop,” RSF said in a September 17 statement. “In the past few days alone, three journalists have been the victims of arbitrary accusations such as inciting rebellion, treason, and anti-Pakistan activities.”
The three journalists are newspaper editor Bilal Farooqui; Absar Alam, a former head of the government’s media regulator; and Asad Ali Toor, a television producer.
But Khan recently maintained there was no crackdown against journalists in his country. "I don't mind criticism, but there is blatant propaganda against the government,” he told Al-Jazeera earlier this month. “Unfortunately, it is the government who feels unprotected, not the media.”
International watchdogs, however, refute such claims. “In Pakistan, arbitrary arrest, detention, and baseless criminal prosecutions are used as instruments of press censorship,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, noted on September 10.
On September 1, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), another media watchdog, called on Pakistan to investigate threats made to journalists Ahmad Noorani and Gul Bukhari. Using public records, Noorani published an exposé detailing the alleged wealth of former army general Asim Saleem Bajwa.
“Journalists cannot do their essential work when they fear for their lives or their families’ safety, and it is the responsibility of Pakistan’s government to create an environment in which reporting in the public interest isn’t a dangerous act,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.
Pakistan is deemed one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Some 61 media professionals have been killed in the country since 1992, according to CPJ. The country of 220 million ranked 145th out of 180 countries on RSF's World Press Freedom Index this year.