Islamabad, Pakistan – At least 23 Pakistani journalists have been “targeted” under the country’s draconian cyber-crime law in the last two years, establishing a “chilling pattern” of using the threat of legal action to silence dissent, a new report by a media rights watchdog says.
Freedom Network, a Pakistan-based group, released its report to coincide with the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, being marked worldwide on Tuesday.
The “crimes” Pakistani journalists were charged with included “bringing the armed forces into disrepute”, “bringing the judiciary into disrepute” and “bringing the intelligence agencies into disrepute”. In at least one case, the journalist was accused of committing “treason”.
The cases under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA, also referred to as the country’s “cyber-crime law”) were often compounded with allegations under the penal code, with criminal cases registered against 13 of the 23 journalists.
At least nine journalists were arrested in connection with those inquiries, with six forced to obtain bail after spending up to 60 days in jail while under investigation.
Pakistan’s vibrant press includes an active television news media landscape, with dozens of channels offering 24/7 live news coverage and news analysis talk shows every evening. There are also dozens of print newspapers and, increasingly, online outlets or YouTube channels being run by journalists.
Increasingly, however, human rights groups and journalists have warned that journalists are facing increased strictures from the authorities not to cover certain topics, particularly allegations of the military’s increasing role in governance and politics.
News television channels that do not abide by the informal rules have seen their signals abruptly censored, newspapers have seen distribution disrupted, and individual journalists have been abducted after filing stories deemed critical of the military.
A 2019 Al Jazeera investigation documented the forms of coercion used to enforce the new code of censorship. Increasingly, the government has used the cyber-crime law as a means of targeting journalists, a 2020 Al Jazeera report found.
Earlier this month, the government expanded (PDF) its powers under the cyber-crime law, including a clause that “requires” all internet service providers and social media companies to break encryption and share user data with investigators if so required.
Pakistan’s powerful military has directly ruled the country for roughly half of its 74-year history, and is accused by the political opposition of having rigged the 2018 elections to bring Prime Minister Imran Khan to power. Khan and the military deny the allegations.
International media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym RSF) says that acts of “brazen censorship” and the military’s role influence over the government have “increased dramatically” since Khan came to power.
“After reining in the traditional media, the [military and intelligence services] has set about purging the Internet and social media of content not to its liking,” reads RSF’s country profile for Pakistan.
Pakistan ranked 145 out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index 2021.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.