MSR’s ongoing incarceration: “There still remain journalists in this country determined to hold their ground”

The March 12 arrest of Mir Shakilur Rahman sent shockwaves through journalist and human rights communities, Here’s a link to my piece about this issue in The Washington Post today: In Pakistan, a bizarre arrest shows how media freedom is being squeezed.

But even if he is granted bail now – after over 100 days of being denied his liberty and that too at a time of Covid — this will be a minor victory  achieved at a huge cost, not only for Rahman, but also for media freedom and democracy in Pakistan.

The “undue and unholy haste” of the arrest, which occurred on the same day the inquiry was authorized, was not only unprecedented, it violated the rules and protocols of the arresting body itself, says Amjad Pervaiz, Rahman’s defense counsel.

The arresting body, the National Accountability Bureau, is widely seen as partisan in how it takes up cases. If there was wrongdoing, the NAB should indict Rahman, say legal experts. Yet it took more than three months for the government to file charges against him, and the charges finally filed contain no evidence against him.

Photo of MSR after his arrest March 12 leaked from NAB cell.

In the past, authorities would withhold newsprint or issue press advisories to bring the media in line. Now, as I write in my Washington Post piece: “threats to journalists from government officials and ministers, law enforcement and the prime minister himself ricochet virtually, echoed by online troll armies. The increased targeting of social media users, human rights and peace activists, and journalists is pushing many into self-censorship. Lately, reporters exposing the inadequacies of Pakistan’s coronavirus response and province chiefs whose policies differ from the center are also being targeted.

“Over the past 18 months, the government has withheld revenues from media houses that don’t toe the line. Newspaper companies face distribution disruption, and television channels have been taken abruptly off-air. A youth-led human rights movement is so heavily censored that it doesn’t exist on mainstream media. Direct threats to journalists via WhatsApp calls or messages are increasing”.

See below: Letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan from United Nations human rights officials about the detention. No response.

Detaining the owner/chief editor of Pakistan’s biggest media group — incorporating the Jang Group of Companies, Geo TV Network, The News International (and The News on Sunday) in this arbitrary way, violating legal process to detain him for over 100 days, sends a further chilling message to the media.

Reproduced below excerpts Dawn’s stellar editorial June 25, 2020, Unjustified detention:

WHAT began as a farce is becoming more so by the day. It has been over 100 days since Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, editor-in-chief of Jang group, was arrested by NAB in a 34-year-old property case in March. Since then, his bail petition has gone unheard with five bail hearings either cancelled/postponed for one reason or another….

The arrest itself was completely uncalled for. Mr Rahman had appeared before NAB for the second time to answer questions about the property in question — which the accountability body alleges was illegally leased to him by Nawaz Sharif in 1986 — when he was suddenly taken into custody.

It is an ordeal designed to test the patience and break the will of the individual at its centre. But as everyone in the media knows, this is about far more. It is about sending a message to ‘troublesome’ journalists and media houses who dare to question the modus operandi of powerful organisations like NAB, that such ‘investigative instincts’ could cost them dearly, where both revenue streams and peace of mind are concerned. Our dysfunctional judicial system further exacerbates the travails of the targeted individuals.

All manner of outrageous accusations, including treason, have been levelled at journalists for doing their duty, simply because their work has threatened to expose the officially sanctioned narrative for being a sham. The state seems determined to grind down the media into a supine uniformity, all reading from the same script and peddling the same fictions. It should know there still remain journalists in this country determined to hold their ground in protecting their hard-won freedoms.

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