Nine Pakistani citizens have filed a constitutional petition in Pakistan’s Sindh High Court in response to recent harassment and arrests of journalists and activists. The petition was filed Monday 5 June, naming the Federation of Pakistan and Federal Investigation Agency as respondents.
The petitioners, who are journalists and activists, include Farieha Aziz. Aziz is the director of Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani nonprofit that promotes digital freedom and gender rights through advocacy and research, though the group was not part of the petition. Bolo Bhi won Index on Censorship’s 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award.
“We’ve approached court because as citizens we believe the government has acted unlawfully and its actions are creating an environment of fear, in turn causing a chilling effect on speech,” Aziz told Index. “As citizens and professionals we believe we must collect to take such initiatives in the interest of democracy and to ensure that rule of law is upheld.”
The petitioners are responding to government actions that they claim have a “chilling effect on freedom of speech”. Pakistan’s government has been using cyber crime laws to crackdown on activists who criticise the military. On 10 May, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority texted citizens a message cautioning against blasphemous online content and suggesting that they report any such content. Pakistan’s cyber crime laws allow the government to censor material online. This followed an order in March from the Islamabad High Court to remove blasphemous material from all websites, even if that meant blocking those websites.
Pakistan has become an increasingly hostile environment for journalists and critics of government actions. In January, five prominent online critics of Pakistan’s military went missing within a few days of each other, and their websites were immediately blocked. Last week, Geo news journalist Azaz Syed escaped an attempted kidnapping in Islamabad, and the perpetrators have not yet been identified. Another journalist from Geo TV, Hamid Mir, was seriously wounded in a gun attack last year.
This is not the first time Syed has been confronted with threats and attacks because of his work. In 2010 he received threatening phone calls and his home was attacked, and although he was able to name his assailants the police have yet to lodge an official complaint. This time, Syed has avoided naming his attackers as he fears for the security of his family.
Syed describes the changing environment for journalists as moving away from physical attacks. News organisations are encouraging journalists not to anger those in power, even pushing them to avoid posting on social media. According to Syed, only those who do not listen and continue to post are at risk of physical attack. “This is happening because the culprits involved in attacking the journalists never face the long arm of law,” Syed told Index. “Everything ultimately goes to the imbalance of civil-military relations in the country.”
On 14 May, the minister of the interior ordered the FIA to take action against individuals suspected of carrying out anti-military campaigns online. The FIA has continued to detain people suspected of participating in this type of campaign.
Activist Adnan Afzal Qureshi was arrested by FIA on 31 May for “anti-military tweets” and “abusive language against military personnel and political leaders,” according to the FIA. He was charged under sections of the law relating to “offence against the dignity of a natural person” and “cyberstalking”.
The FIA has sent notices to other activists instructing them to report to the counter-terrorism wing of the police station. The notices do not include any suspected offences, or the type of information FIA is seeking.
The petitioners called the government and the FIA’s actions violations of due process. In their statement, they condemn the government’s actions as “coercive acts to intimidate, harass and threaten not just targeted individuals but citizens at large,” which they accuse of attempting to inhibit the public’s exercise of rights.
The respondents were instructed to file a response by 15 June, which was later adjourned to 25 June.
In another development, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan sentenced Taimoor Raza to death on 11 June for committing blasphemy in a Facebook post. His offence consisted of disparaging the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures.The exact contents of the post have not been released, but Raza was arrested following a debate about Islam on Facebook with a counter-terrorism agent last year. He was charged with the maximum sentence under laws punishing derogatory remarks about religious figures, and a law concerning derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. This is the first death sentence for a social media post in Pakistan.