Pakistan authorities under fire for harassing press

ISLAMABAD (UCAN): Pakistan’s opposition leaders, along with international media bodies and human rights organisations have called for the country’s authorities to immediately release the editor-in-chief of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, chief executive and editor-in-chief of the Jang Group the country’s largest media company.

Jang Media Group owns Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest television news channel, the English-language daily The News International, widely circulated Urdu-language newspaper Daily Jang and other sports and entertainment television channels.  

Shakil-ur-Rehman was taken into custody in Lahore on March 12 after he appeared before the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the federal anti-corruption watchdog, to record his statement in a 34-year-old property case. In his defence the Jang Group accused the NAB of threatening its reporters, editors and producers for critical reporting.

“In the past 18 months, NAB has sent our reporters, producers and editors—directly and indirectly—over a dozen notices, threatening a shutdown of our channels due to our reporting and our programmes on NAB,” said a spokesperson.

“The group will not stop any reporters, producers or anchors from covering any story that is of merit and at the same time will include NAB’s version,” the spokesperson added.

Opposition leader, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, strongly condemned the arrest. “The arrest of MSR (Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman ) once again has strengthened the perception of lopsided accountability in Pakistan. NAB has lost all credibility and is now only a mere tool in the hands of the government to victimize opponents and silence dissent,” he said in a statement.

“This is an attack on the press, freedom of expression and a clear message to the media that criticism in any form will not be tolerated,” Bhutto-Zardari said.

Separately, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called for Shakil-ur-Rehman’s immediate release.

“The space for dissent in Pakistan is shrinking fast and anyone who criticises government actions can become a target,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, pointing out, “Detaining Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman is just the latest case of harassment against Pakistan’s beleaguered media.”

The statement noted that Pakistan’s media operates in a climate of fear and media outlets are under pressure from authorities not to criticise the government.

“The Pakistan government is failing in its international legal obligation to ensure an environment permitting free expression and dissent,” Adams said. 

“The authorities should take all measures necessary to stop the intimidation and harassment of the media and dissenting voices,” he added.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called for the release of Shakil-ur-Rehman.

“Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau should immediately release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman and drop the obviously drummed-up case against him,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, said, adding, “This arrest over a 34-year-old land deal makes a mockery of Pakistan’s claim to be a democracy that upholds freedom of the press.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was deeply concerned at Shakil-ur-Rehman’s arrest.

“There remains a strong suspicion that such actions by NAB are selective, arbitrary and politically motivated. The journalism community sees this as yet another attempt to gag a beleaguered independent press. HRCP demands that the government should immediately take steps to address this issue and prove its commitment to #pressfreedom,” it said.

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