Saturday, March 14, 2020
THE arrest of Jang Group owner Mir Shakilur Rehman by NAB has once again highlighted the anti-graft watchdog’s high-handedness and propensity to target critics.
In a move that bears all the telltale signs of a witch-hunt, the bureau called Mr Rahman to appear before it and then proceeded to arrest him for allegedly acquiring land through illegal means.
The probe relates to property of almost seven acres that Mr Rahman is said to have acquired 34 years ago during the tenure of the then Punjab chief minister Nawaz Sharif.
According to NAB, since Mr Rahman could not satisfactorily answer its questions, an arrest warrant was served on him and he was detained in the bureau’s lockup.
That the bureau decided to investigate a three-decade old matter at this time would be baffling had its modus operandi not been clearly established.Time and again, NAB has been accused of political victimisation and of pursuing cases against those critical of the incumbent government or the bureau.It is no secret that NAB has targeted opposition politicians by initiating probes, arresting them and then holding them in custody for extended periods — remands which have often ended in bail when courts found no reasonable justification to support the prolonged detention of suspects.
The Jang Group’s revelation that NAB officials have threatened the closure of its channels and asked its journalists to ‘slow down’ or stop stories may offer some explanation as to why NAB felt compelled to suddenly take up this case which for all these years did not appear to be on the anti-graft body’s radar.
If there is to be an investigation, it must be conducted in a professional, equitable manner and on the basis of sound evidence.
The bureau has earned a reputation for arbitrarily arresting people and exerting pressure on them despite their cooperation with investigators.
In fact, it is this very notion of ‘arrest first, investigate later’ that the Islamabad High Court criticised when it chastised NAB in the cases of Ahsan Iqbal and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for failing to produce compelling reasons to arrest individuals.
In a separate case, the court remarked that NAB appeared to be more interested in arresting individuals than investigating them. Mr Rahman’s arrest, as in so many other NAB cases, smacks of deliberate harassment.
This case comes across as a way of silencing a free media that is exercising its rise to criticise the flawed accountability exercise.
Pakistani authorities should release from custody an editor who may be facing charges as a form of political harassment, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 12, 2020, Mir Shakilur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media group in Pakistan, was arrested in Lahore by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption watchdog, on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. The NAB had summoned Rehman to their offices to give a statement. Jang Group alleges that in the past 18 months, the NAB has sent more than a dozen threatening letters to its reporters, editors, and producers for critical reporting of the NAB.
“The space for dissent in Pakistan is shrinking fast, and anyone who criticizes government actions can become a target,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining Mir Shakilur Rehman is just the latest case of harassment against Pakistan’s beleaguered media.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has stated that “pretrial detention should be an exception and as short as possible.” Pretrial detention should not be used as a form of punishment.
Pakistan’s media operates in a climate of fear, Human Rights Watch said. Media outlets are under pressure from authorities not to criticize the government. In July 2019, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) blocked three television news channels – Capital TV, 24 News HD, and Abbtakk News Network – after they broadcast speeches by opposition leaders. The Pakistan Broadcasters Association, a private industry association, contended that the channels were taken off air without giving them a reason or a hearing.
In some cases, regulatory agencies have blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programs. GEO TV, a private television channel that is part of Jang Group, was temporarily forced off the air and audience access was restricted as punishment for editorials criticizing the government. In July 2019, the Media Regulatory Authority terminated a live interview with opposition leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari on GEO TV, shortly after it began.
In October, Steven Butler, the Asia coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, was denied entry into Pakistan even though he had a valid visa.
Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of intimidation, harassment, and surveillance by government officials against various nongovernmental organizations and their staff. The government uses the Policy for Regulation of INGOs (International Nongovernmental Organizations) to impede the registration and functioning of international humanitarian and human rights organizations.
The NAB has been widely criticized for being used for political purposes. In March 2020, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court ruled the NAB had made arbitrary use of its arrest powers. In February, the Supreme Court Bar Association and the Pakistan Bar Council, the top elected bodies of lawyers in the country, “strongly condemned” the summons issued to opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto, calling it an “act of personal victimization.”
“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.”
The present administration of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, is the third consecutive elected government to come to power, as a result of national polls.
For a political party that was bolstered by the media, in its early days, one would have expected it to further push for the freedom of press. But, it hasn’t.
The arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of Pakistan's largest media group Jang and GEO, by the anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau, should not be seen in isolation. There was a pattern on display in the last 20 months, since the PTI came to power, to vilify journalists, especially those associated with the Jang group.
If Prime Minister Imran Khan ever believed in the freedom of press, he has now taken a U-turn.
International media watchdogs, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and others have strongly condemned the attempt to silence independent press in the country.
Since the past few years, journalists in Pakistan have been facing a relentless onslaught. The attack has been on social media and on the ground. Television and print reporters would at times find notices from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or gag orders from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Now, the NAB has also joined the bandwagon, to please the premier.In January, while in Davos, the prime minister told a gathered audience that he does not read the newspapers or watch evening TV shows. “I am used to the criticism,” he added, “but the last one and half years I’ve been hammered in the media.”
Now, it seems, the prime minister doesn’t want anyone in the country to read or watch the news.
Not too long back, the same Khan waxed lyrical about the press and even credited it for bringing him to his current position, as prime minister. Once, he even promised to abolish the ministry of information and to make PTV and Radio Pakistan autonomous bodies which would run on the BBC pattern. Khan also went as far as to suggest that Pakistan have an independent advertising policy.
But when he came to power, he forgot his promises. His political party targeted even those talk show heads and reporters who once stood up for Khan.
Mir Shakil ur Rehman was arrested this week in a case that dates back to 1986. That the NAB had to dig out papers of an over 30-year-old property shows that the government was struggling to bring any other case against the editor. Imran Khan had once accused Rehman of being involved in acquiring foreign funds through wrongful means. But as fate has it, Khan’s own party is facing those charges in a case taken up by the Election Commission of Pakistan.
Even before Imran Khan and the PTI made it to office, Geo and Jang reporters were being targeted by him and his political party. In 2014, while covering Khan’s 100-day rally, Geo reporters and cameramen were physically attacked and its DSNG’s trashed by supporters of the PTI.
After winning the election, the PTI-led government first stopped state advertisements of two leading media houses, DAWN and Geo/Jang. Both, Khan’s government believes, are critical of his policies. As a result the two organisations faced a massive financial crisis and had to lay off staff and delay salaries.
Meanwhile, bloggers and journalists were being arrested or harassed in contrived cases by the FIA, under a draconic 2016 electronic crimes act. None of the charges could hold up in a Pakistani court.
Furthermore, hashtag and social media campaigns are routinely launched against TV anchors and reporters by Twitter users who claim to be supporters of the PTI.More recently, the ruling party also proposed to merge PEMRA and the Press Council under a new body, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, to give it overarching powers. The idea was later dropped.Last month, the prime minister and his media team formulated social media rules, without consulting the stakeholders. The rules had to be yanked, after a public outrage and after international social media companies warned that they would have to reevaluate their plans to work in the country.
And when nothing else worked, the PTI took the route often traveled by military dictators: use PEMRA to shut down news channels.
Some media house were left with no other choice but to convince strong dissenting voices to stop writing their widely-read articles, for fear of upsetting the men in power.
Due to the lack of options, many out-of-job journalists have turned to social media and YouTube to make their voice heard.
Once I asked the former director general FIA Bashir Memon why his organisation only targets journalists, rights activists and bloggers critical of government policies, he said: “Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, whenever we [the FIA] receives a complaint from the ministry of interior, we have to comply immediately.”Journalists in Pakistan have struggled for a long time and come a long way. In the last 72 years, reporters were flogged, convicted and jailed. The rights, they fought to achieve, are in danger of being rolled back.Imran Khan and his political party’s vitriol could result in violence against journalists. Reporters and editors, Mr. Khan, are citizens of this country. They too deserve protection and safety from their government.
As for the media, the only option left is to unite and fight a united battle for freedom of press. Because, it maybe us today, it could be you tomorrow.
By Fahd Humayun
For many in Pakistan, no other group better exemplifies the US's long history of playing sides to suit its own ends.