OOnce upon a time, Imran Khan and I fought together for freedom of the press in Pakistan. In November 2007, when then-military ruler General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and banned me from appearing on television, Khan was one of the few politicians who accompanied me. I took my popular political discourse to the streets of Islamabad where large crowds would come and listen to us speak directly, and Khan was a regular guest. “When I become prime minister,” he promised, “journalists will have real freedom of the press.”
Now I have been blown away once again, but this time Khan is the Prime Minister. This ban immediately. He was speaking on the sidelines of a press conference in Islamabad. Journalists, lawyers and civil society activists were there to show solidarity with journalist Asad Ali Tor, who was attacked inside his own home last week. Three men came and tied him up and beat him severely. Tor said the attackers identified themselves with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
In my speech at the protest, I gave a warning to the attackers. If they keep entering our homes and attack us, I said, we will not keep quiet. I did not name any individual or organization. This is the real tragedy of today’s Pakistan. The country is run by unknown people. Everyone knows who they are, but no one dares to identify them. From the shadows, they escaped accountability.
Despite the presence of CCTV footage, which showed the three men entering the Tor building in detail, no arrests have been made. Instead, a smear campaign has been launched against him. It is alleged that the ambassador provided the information to Hussein. He is thought to have survived an earlier attempt to oust him following Mr Jiang’s intervention. Some have claimed it was a “personal dispute” that was attacked by his girlfriend’s brothers. Tor responded to the latter with a simple challenge: “If this is true, arrest these brothers and prove me wrong.”
The attack on Tor was the latest in a long-running attack on journalists in the Pakistani capital. In April, my former colleague Absar Alam was shot while walking in a park. In July 2020, Matiullah Jan was abducted for several hours. The government claims that Islamabad is the safest city in the country, but as Media Watchdog Freedom Network Pakistan recently reported, it has become the most dangerous city for journalists in the country.
This pattern can be gauged from depression. They are always critical and free-thinking journalists who are targeted. The attacks came after several threats. Following the attack, the victim is accused of fabricating the incident for publicity and political asylum. Despite the evidence, the attackers are never caught. Instead, the victims are called traitors and even face new charges.
Since the attack, the Federal Investigation Agency, which routinely harasses journalists, has called on Torres to respond to new charges. Meanwhile, a journalist from a former anonymous newspaper has lodged a complaint demanding that I be tried for treason. This is not the first time I have encountered this situation. In 2014, I survived an assassination attempt after being shot six times. Doctors managed to remove four pills. I still carry the other two inside my body. Two years ago, a powerful bomb was discovered under my car. I have never received justice. Instead, I was wrong to demand it.
I decided to talk last week because that’s enough. In the past year, 148 incidents of threats and attacks against journalists have been reported. There’s a lot of censorship نے including the soundtrack, the good shows, the shows and the channels that are mysteriously disappearing from the screens. Online, there are vicious and integrated cyber harassment campaigns.
When Imran Khan came to power, Pakistan was ranked 139th in the World Press Freedom Index. It is now ranked 145th. “Forgiveness for crimes of violence against journalists is tomorrow,” said journalists without reporters. Speaking to the BBC last week, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry jokingly claimed: “We probably have more free media than in the first world.” His own ministry has proposed a new law, the Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance 2021, which will make the junta in Myanmar proud.
Under the law, all places for journalism will be subject to strict provisions. A tribunal, appointed by neither the ministry nor the judiciary, will decide what cannot be said or done. Any content may be prohibited without notice or hearing. The culprits will be sentenced to three years imprisonment and a fine of millions of rupees. Banning me is just the beginning. There is still a lot to come.
When the management of Geo News called me to say that they were under pressure to take me off the air, I did not blame them. Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, the channel’s owner, spent 241 days behind bars, which Human Rights Watch condemned as “politically motivated”. I want to ask Prime Minister Khan if he remembers the promise he made to me 14 years ago. Will he now stand with journalists as he did then, or will he side with the enemies of press freedom?
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