Pakistan: Zafar Achakzai charged for anti-army post

Reporter Zafar Achakzai is accused of posting illegal material on Facebook, his father and rights groups say.

Pakistani soldiers, military, army
Pakistan ranks low on press freedom mainly due to censorship around the role of the military [Fayaz Aziz/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani journalist arrested last week at his home in the southwestern city of Quetta has been charged with allegedly posting illegal material on Facebook, rights groups and his family said.

Armed men, some in paramilitary uniform and others in plain-clothes, broke down the door to Zafar Achakzai’s home on June 25 and arrested him, Achakzai’s father told Al Jazeera.

He was handed over to the Federal Investigation Agency on Thursday and charged under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), said Naimat Achakzai.

Provincial government officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the case.

The detention is the latest in a series of arrests targeting journalists and social media activists for criticising the country’s powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 69 years since independence.

The crackdown was ordered by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, according to an interior ministry statement on May 14.

Achakzai said that he believed his son was arrested for criticising security forces regarding their handling of a hit-and-run case where a provincial politician allegedly struck and killed a traffic policeman.

The case went viral on social media after CCTV footage appeared to show the politician’s car striking the policeman and driving away.

Naimat Achakzai owns the Daily Qudrat newspaper, an Urdu-language daily with a small print run but a huge following online, with more than seven million followers on Facebook across Pakistan.

Zafar Achakzai, 21, is the newspaper’s chief reporter, he said.

“They broke the door down, they assaulted our family members … They took him from us during this raid,” said Naimat, of the raid.

“I was asking where they had come from, but they were not telling us. Whoever spoke to them, they would slap them.”

Zafar’s mobile phones and laptop were also taken during the raid, Naimat said. Family members said they have been denied any information on the whereabouts of Zafar Achakzai since his abduction.

Ongoing online crackdown

In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for the immediate release of the journalist. Freedom Network, a leading Pakistani media watchdog, said it was concerned by the latest arrest.

“We are seeing more and more that people in smaller towns and cities are using social media to express themselves, and this is the last frontier that the government is trying to control,” Iqbal Khattak, Freedom Network’s safety adviser, told Al Jazeera.

“I think they are systematically, slowly and steadily going towards controlling the medium the same way they have almost completely controlled the print and electronic media,” Khattak said.

Pakistan has a vibrant media, with dozens of private television news stations and newspapers, but the country consistently ranks low on press freedom rankings, mainly due to censorship around the role of the military in both security and political affairs, and threats from armed groups such as the Pakistan Taliban.

The country slipped to 139 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index in 2017.

RSF has specifically pointed to the use of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) as a means to control the news media. PECA criminalises any online posts that are critical of the country’s military, government and other institutions of the state.

Last month, dozens of political activists were arrested and charged under PECA for allegedly posting material that was critical of the military.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera