Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international non governmental organization that seeks to protect freedom of journalists around the world, has long chastised Pakistan for its abysmal record. Pakistan ranks 145th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than in 2019.
On July 8th, RSF issued a statement that it was “shocked by a leaked Pakistani government internal memo about stopping the “rhetoric against Pakistan” of six journalists based abroad. Regardless of the exact nature of the leak, the Pakistani authorities will be held responsible for anything that happens to these journalists or their families. Dated 18 June, the confidential interior ministry memo, of which RSF has obtained a copy, names six journalists – five Pakistanis and an Afghan citizen – alleged to be “involved in various activities in Europe and America which are seriously damaging Pakistan’s foreign interests abroad.”
This internal Pakistani government document accused these journalists “of “either participating in anti-Pakistan activities or producing anti-state content” for foreign media under pseudonyms, the memo says: “you are requested to strictly follow [their] movements and social media accounts.” And it adds: “They maybe [sic] approached through proper channels to stop such rhetoric against Pakistan in future.” The memo is addressed to the Director-General of Inter-Service [sic] Intelligence (ISI), Islamabad, the Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, the Director-General of Military Intelligence, Islamabad, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The memo was apparently not circulated within the interior ministry, as would normally be the case with this kind of document. In other words, rather than an official publication, it is a working document addressed solely to the five named recipients. It is unclear who originally leaked it and with what purpose.”
According to RSF it has seen a disturbing surge in incidents targeting Pakistani journalists based abroad since the start of 2020. In April came the mysterious death in Sweden of Sajid Hussain, the editor of the Balochistan Times website.
According to Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, “Let’s not be fooled, the Pakistani intelligence agencies could have leaked this document in an attempt to poison public opinion and intimidate the journalists it names. Even if it is not an official memo, the sinister nature of the suggestion that journalists based abroad should be ‘approached through proper channels’ is extremely shocking. We will pay close attention to the safety of the reporters named in this memo and we will know who to hold responsible if any of them, or a member of their family, is subjected to threats or intimidation.”