Pakistan’s election season is turning out to be one in which not only politicians but even journalists face harassment and are unable to cover campaigns freely and openly.
Just this week, the international media watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontiers or Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its Pakistan-based partner, Freedom Network (FN), appealed to the caretaker government: “What with threats, abductions, beatings, illegal suspensions and disrupted distribution, media and journalists are being harassed by the military and intelligence services, as well by political actors, in a clear attempt to intimidate them and prevent independent reporting ahead of the elections.”
The letter referred to the intimidation, threats and attacks on journalists including the break in at Marvi Sirmed’s residence and the abduction and subsequent release of Gul Bukhari
According to Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk: “We have been seeing an alarming increase in violations of press freedom and the circulation of news and information in recent months. This interference is absolutely unacceptable in a country that claims to be democratic. We call on Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities to let journalists work freely and inform the public without threats or reprisals. The respect of Pakistan’s leaders for their fellow citizens and the country’s international credibility are both at issue.”
Freedom Network executive director Iqbal Khattak added: “The Pakistani people must be fully able to exercise their constitutional right to elect a new government on 25 July. Caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk and Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar have publicly stated that they will ensure free and fair elections, for which a free and independent press is essential. The election results will have no credibility if journalists are not allowed to cover the election without hindrance, pressure or manipulation of any kind.”
Pakistan, a country created to protect the British Raj’s Muslim minority, has over the decades become a country where no minority – Muslim or non-Muslim – is safe. After almost two decades a Pakistani has been chosen as a cardinal by The Holy See and not only is there hardly any discussion of this, but the beleaguered Pakistani Christian minority continues to face consistent harassment and pressure.
Pakistan’s first cardinal in 24 hours, Karachi Cardinal-designate Joseph Coutts, warned of “gradual erosion” of religious freedom in Pakistan because the government has been unable to control the vigilantism of religious extremists. Pakistan’s last cardinal was Joseph Cordeiro died in 1994.
Speaking about Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law, at the conclusion of a symposium “Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action” in Rome, the Cardinal said “It’s causing a lot of problems right now. People are being killed … just because of an accusation. Our government is not strong enough to control the kind of extremism that has developed in the country. It is enough to accuse someone of blasphemy … and you’re finished.”
The Cardinal stated that in Pakistan it is not only Christians who face unfair accusations of breaking the country’s blasphemy law, but also Ahmadi and Shia Muslims. “We are suffering as Christians, but our Muslim brethren are also suffering.”
According to a story in The National Catholic Reporter, “Coutts said the violence is carried out by those with “extremist thinking largely based on emotions.” He shared one example of a threat he received after he was invited by Muslim friends to visit their madrassa around Christmastime one year. He said that some days later he and some of the Muslims received hand-written notes, warning them: “Stop all this rubbish or we’ll pull out your tongues.” “What can you do with people like this?” he asked. “This is the reality. I think we’ve got to look for the answers but I don’t know the answers.”
Openly threatening activists families, kidnapping prominent journalists, raiding houses of human rights activists and journalists has now become open practice in Pakistan. It looks like the security establishment has declared open war against anyone it perceives as a threat to its narrative and its image.
In January 2017 several bloggers including Prof Salman Haider and Ahmad Waqass Goraya were picked up and tortured by the security agencies. In our article Arrest Militants not Scholars we had said “If terrorism is going to be defeated in reality and not just in slogans, state agencies will have to carry out operations against extremist militants, not scholars.”
Mr Goraya was forced to leave Pakistan and seek asylum in Europe. On June 20, Mr Goraya tweeted that his family that is being targeted and “his elderly parents were threatened directly with abduction and torture to ‘teach me a lesson’.” In a statement issued today the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) condemned what it saw as “this latest attempt to cow human rights defenders into silence. To use a person’s vulnerable elderly parents as leverage is nothing short of cowardly. That Mr Goraya has reportedly been warned to refrain from tweeting or writing, in his words “at least till the elections”, is an ominous sign at such a critical point in Pakistan’s democratic development.’”
Pakistan’s brave journalists continue to be targeted as well.
As mentioned in our story Pakistan army declares war on dissenters, in early June of this year, just one day after DGISPR Asif Ghafoor’s press conference in which he showed a list of prominent journalists who the security establishment viewed as threats, well-known journalist and activist and vocal critic of the military establishment Gul Bukhari was abducted by unknown persons in Lahore while on her way to the studios of Waqt TV. According to a report in Dawn: Bukhari “was abducted on Sherpao Bridge in Lahore’s Cantonment area. Her family had reported her missing to the police. Punjab Police said Bukhari had not been detained by its personnel.” Bukhari was freed in the wee hours of the following morning after outrage and concern expressed on social media by media watchdogs as well as the British High Commission in Pakistan.
On Thursday June 21, the residence of prominent journalist, analyst and Daily Times’ correspondent Marvi Sirmed “was ransacked as the family entered home after being away for holidays. Two laptops, one smartphone, passports of family members among other travel documents were taken.” In a Daily Times report: “Marvi sirmed said that from the look of it she could tell that the miscreants went through all of the family’s belongings but no valuables such as the jewelry was taken. She said her wedding ring was also gone and she couldn’t find two of her bangles and assumes were also taken. She said the miscreants detached the new passports and took the valid ones while leaving those expired behind. Marvi said the police have written a complaint but an FIR hasn’t been lodged yet. She added that she doesn’t know much about the incident except that it was similar to an incident that happened in 2010 while they lived in another house in F11. “I don’t know who would want to rob my house as I don’t even have precious jewellery or such valuables here.”
In its statement the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “also expressed its alarm ‘at the growing frequency with which human rights defenders are being targeted. HRCP calls for a public and transparent investigation of the incident to make it clear that such callous attempts to intimidate human rights defenders or their families are unacceptable and unconstitutional. This ugly state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to continue.’”