Chronicle of an arrest foretold
This story first appeared in The Hindu
On March 12, Pakistan’s anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman (in picture) the editor-in-chief of Jang Group, the largest media group in the country. The group owns the largest Urdu newspaper Jang and English daily The News, besides Geo News and other television channels.
Mr. Rehman was arrested on charges pertaining to a 34-year-old property transaction. Many in the media and Opposition parties see the arrest as the government’s way of muzzling the media. The Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and many other national and international human rights and media groups have condemned the arrest. “We noted with concern the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman. Press freedom, due process, and the rule of law are pillars of every democracy,” tweeted the official account of the U.S. Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA), signed by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, held a press conference on the matter, distancing the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government of Imran Khan from the arrest. Ms. Awan said the NAB is an independent institution and the arrest was not an attack on media freedom.
The NAB has been criticised by Opposition politicians for its one-sided functioning in the past. Right after Ms. Awan’s press conference, cable operators were told to either shut down Geo TV’s broadcast or move the channel to the last numbers on their respective cables. Geo staffers say the directives came from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) but its chairman denied this. It has been reported that in meetings with journalists, Prime Minister Khan criticised the Jang Group and Dawn. “Prime Minister Imran Khan can’t tolerate the voice of dissent. He has recently expressed his displeasure against Jang/Geo and daily Dawn. Arrest of Mir Shakeel ur Rehman is the first step. Dawn can be the next,” tweeted senior journalist Mazhar Abbas.
Selectivity and arbitrariness
Harris Khalique, a poet and secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the arrest of Mr. Rehman is yet another example of selectivity and arbitrariness in the NAB’s conduct. “The regime is blatantly going after individuals it dislikes in the name of curbing corruption. I share the view of the wider journalist community and civil society in Pakistan that it is an attempt towards silencing any critical opinion expressed over the government’s weak political and economic policies,” he told The Hindu.
Imran Aslam, President of Jang Group and Geo TV Network, told The Hindu that anybody who has been watching Pakistan’s media over the years would know that “this was an arrest foretold”. The Jang/Geo group has been facing intimidation, pressure and various kinds of threats for a long time now, he said. “Not just the management but our reporters and staff members have been harassed. There is a long litany that goes on and on.”
The arrest is a “body blow to all of us — those who have worked with him and those of us who have known him in a personal capacity as well”, Mr. Aslam added. “This is a direct attack on the freedom of the press. This isn’t just another case of accountability. This is probably because we were holding the NAB accountable. We have felt our space being encroached upon — for which we have fought for a long period of time. We have seen how these shadows had been lengthening.”
Senator Sherry Rehman said the arrest is open harassment of media. “First it was Dawn and other assorted journalists, and now The News. This government just wants megaphones that sing its praises and nothing else on air. The message to the media and the Opposition is clear: don’t be telling any truth to power, we will dig up old cases and put the NAB on your trail,” Ms. Rehman told The Hindu.
Opposition parties — including the PML-N and PPP — filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court against Mr. Rahman’s arrest, arguing it was part of a crackdown on the media by the government and an attack on freedom of expression.
On Wednesday, the High Court asked PEMRA to restore Geo to its original numbers on TV. Geo has now been restored to its original position but journalists remain concerned. According to a report in The News, “After failing to implicate Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in a 34-year old land case, now efforts are afoot to fabricate new cases.”