Recent attacks against independent media in Pakistan

13/12/2019
Open Letter

13 December 2019

Honorable Prime Minister Mr Imran Khan
Honorable President Mr Arif Alvi
Honorable Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari

Re: Recent attacks against independent media in Pakistan

Your Excellencies:

We, the undersigned organizations, members of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), are concerned about recent attacks against independent media in Pakistan.

On 3 December 2019, a mob of about 50 unidentified people gathered outside the Islamabad office of the daily newspaper Dawn, blocking access to the premises for nearly three hours and shouting slogans against the newspaper. The protestors accused the newspaper of damaging the ‘national interest’ – ostensibly because Dawn had published a report identifying the man responsible for fatally stabbing two people in London on 29 November, as having Pakistani origins.

Some of the slogans clearly incited violence against newspaper staff, including calls for the editor and the publisher to be killed. Video footage shows other slogans being shouted in support of the government, the Pakistani army, and its intelligence wing.

On 4 December, a larger demonstration was held outside the Karachi Press Club in Karachi by a group called the ‘Tehrik-e-Tahafuz Pakistan’ [Movement to Safeguard Pakistan], which repeated demands for the publisher and the editor of Dawn to be hanged and for the newspaper to be shut down.

On 6 December, a third protest was held in Islamabad outside the newspaper’s bureau office, with about 100 protestors burning copies of Dawn.

Dawn is considered Pakistan’s most credible newspaper. Its editor, Mr Zaffar Abbas, is a veteran journalist known for his professional integrity and is this year’s recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. He alleged that these protests were “orchestrated” by unknown elements or individuals as part of a “sinister” campaign against the newspaper. No other newspaper has been consistently targeted in this manner. We are concerned for Mr. Abbas’ security, as well as that of other Dawn employees and the journalist community in general.

In addition to the protests outside its Islamabad office and the Karachi Press Club, Dawn has come under other forms of pressure and restrictions. On 4 December, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) received information that the Defense Housing Authority (DHA) in Lahore, a real estate entity managed by the Pakistani army, had blocked the newspaper’s distribution in Lahore. Similar curbs were put in place in several cities in May 2018, considerably disrupting the newspaper’s print distribution .

The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, has stated that, while freedom of expression is a constitutional right, the media’s first responsibility is to protect the “interest of the state,” Implicitly referring to the news story published by Dawn, she termed the protest in Islamabad a “reaction by concerned citizens,” albeit acknowledging that the right to criticism should not take the form of such threats.

These developments are cause for serious concern. The pressure on the media in Pakistan – and especially on Dawn – is rapidly taking a dangerous turn. We are concerned that the government has tacitly enabled the intimidation and harassment of the media in cases where news reports were deemed “against the national interest.” Despite laws against hate speech and incitement to violence (including under various anti-terrorism laws) in Pakistan, the authorities have repeatedly failed to take concrete action against threats, intimidation, and harassment against journalists, and to unequivocally condemn attacks against independent media.

We urge the Pakistani authorities to uphold their constitutional obligations to protect the life and liberty of journalists and enable the latter to discharge their professional duties. We call on the Pakistani authorities to fulfil their commitment to protecting the independence of the media, and to safeguard the right to freedom of opinion and expression by ensuring that persons or groups responsible for inciting violence against journalists for carrying out their duty are held accountable under the law. We also urge the authorities to respect people’s right to information by lifting all curbs on the distribution of newspapers such as Dawn.

Sincerely,

Al-Haq

ALTSEAN-Burma

Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA

Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)

China Labour Bulletin (CLB)

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)

FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)

Human Rights in China (HRIC)

Justice for Iran (JFI)

KontraS (The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence – Indonesia)

Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)

League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)

Manushya Foundation

Odhikar (Bangladesh)

People’s Watch (India)

SUARAM (Malaysia)

Union for Civil Liberties (UCL)

Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)

CC: Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan

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