On Thursday, March 12th, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, the editor-in-chief of the largest media corporation in Pakistan, the Jang Group, was imprisoned for charges from 1986. The charges were for illegally obtaining government land; the law states that he was only allowed four acres, and soon to be Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif allowed him to acquire thirteen—the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) alleged that this amounted to political bribery. The Jang Group includes some of Pakistan’s biggest newspapers as well as one of the largest national television networks, Geo. Critics of the NAB and Prime Minister Imran Khan have called the arrest an attempt to stifle journalism.
The NAB was established in 2000 by the military leader at the time, Pervez Musharraf, with the intention of prosecuting corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. It was seen as an attempt to stifle two leading opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The NAB found ways to drop the charges against politicians who left those parties and joined General Musharraf’s.
After the election of Imran Khan, the NAB and the military have been increasingly criticized for censoring media. The military was also accused of rigging the 2018 election that put Khan in power. Leading opposition parties have also accused Khan of using the NAB for political gains. For example, an interview with the leader of PML-N, Maryam Nawaz, was taken off the air abruptly, and 21 television broadcasters who had aired it received notices from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). It is not only Khan’s party, however, that is responsible for media censorship. In 2014, Hamid Mir, a talk show host on the Geo network was shot and wounded; in 2017, several bloggers that criticized Pakistan’s military as well as religion went missing for weeks, only to be released and suddenly go abroad.
Geo responded to the arrest, saying that the NAB had “sent our reporters, producers, and editors—directly and indirectly—over a dozen threatening notices,” and that the land purchase was entirely legal. They also have gone to accuse the NAB of defending themselves saying they are “a constitutionally protected institution that can’t be criticized.” The NAB has dismissed these claims as “concocted, fabricated and baseless.” Others also criticize the actions of the NAB: Rehman’s daughter, Anamta, said the arrest was “illegal, even by NAB’s rules. This is a fight for freedom of media. Today it’s the editor-in-chief of Jang—tomorrow it can be anyone.” A top journalist in Lahore, where the land was purchased, told BBC that the NAB claims might be accurate—but “there’s no doubt it’s a selective move because evidence of illegal financial activities by owners of the so-called ‘friendly’ media have also been cropping up from time to time but NAB doesn’t seem to be bothered”.
Many watchdog agencies have also spoken out about the arrest. All are heavily critical; some keep their comments on the validity of the arrest and its implications for free media. Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association (PBA), noting that “arresting the editor-in-chief of a media house while the case is still under inquiry… appears to be an attempt at harassment”. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) tweeted “There remains a strong suspicion that such actions by NAB are selective, arbitrary and politically motivated. The journalist community sees this as yet another attempt to gag a beleaguered independent press.” Others call into question the democracy of Pakistan itself. Steven Butler, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said “Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau should immediately release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman and drop the obviously drummed-up case against him. 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,” and Daniel Bastard, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, stated, “This is an absolutely unacceptable violation of the principles of media pluralism and independence during a revelation that was clearly in the Pakistani public interest. We call on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s civilian government to take immediate steps to ensure that cable transmission of the three TV channels is restored. The recent surge in sudden acts of media censorship is exposing the current regime’s increasingly dictatorial nature.”
The arrest of Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman is a symbol of the increasing censorship of media in the state as well as a threat to journalists throughout Pakistan. Moreover, the 2014 assault of Hamid Mir is a human rights violation. This loss of freedom of the press is often an indicator of a regime attempting to consolidating its power. As many noted, this is a worrying sign that Pakistan under Imran Khan is slipping into authoritarianism.
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