Islamabad, Pakistan – Three unidentified men have assaulted a prominent Pakistani journalist after breaking into his apartment, according to the journalist, his lawyer and police, in what appears to be the latest incident of violence targeting press freedom in the South Asian country.
Journalist Asad Ali Toor said in a statement to police that the attack took place at approximately 11pm (18:00 GMT) on Tuesday when he heard the doorbell of his apartment in the Pakistani capital Islamabad ring.
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“[The person at the door] pointed a pistol towards him and said that you should step back,” said Haider Imtiaz, Toor’s lawyer and a member of the Pakistan Bar Council’s Journalist Defence Committee.
“He tried to run away but [the attacker] shouted that if you don’t step back I will shoot you.”
Toor was dragged to his bedroom where he was bound, gagged and beaten by the attacker and two others who had come in with him, according to Toor’s statement.
“They threw me on the floor hard and told me not to make a sound or they would shoot me,” the statement says.
“[One of the attackers] started hitting me repeatedly on the elbows with his pistol butt. […] I tried to scream but no sound came out.”
Toor says the attackers identified themselves as belonging to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Pakistan’s military intelligence service, which has been accused by rights groups of involvement in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the past.
Pakistan’s military’s press wing offered no comment on the allegation.
Toor said he was questioned on the sources of his income and “funding”, and was forced to shout out slogans praising Pakistan, its military, and the ISI, as well as denouncing Pakistan’s eastern neighbour India, northwestern neighbour Afghanistan and Israel.
Police spokesperson Zia Bajwa confirmed the attack and said an investigation was ongoing. Video footage of Toor taken by journalists at the government hospital where he was treated showed him limping and with blood visible on the sleeves of his shirt.
“[Earlier this month the cabinet] passed the Journalists Protection Bill, and to those who passed the bill this is a message that the bill is nothing but a piece of paper…,” Toor told Al Jazeera at his home, as police gathered evidence in the next room.
At a demonstration outside the press club in the capital Islamabad on Wednesday, dozens of people protested against the attack on Toor and called for accountability for those who have attacked journalists in the past.
One placard read: “The attack on Asad Toor is an attack on us all.”
Increased attack on journalists
Pakistan ranks 145 out of 180 countries on media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
“The Pakistani media, which have a long tradition of being very lively, have become a priority target for the country’s ‘deep state’, a euphemism for the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main military intelligence agency, and the significant degree of control they exercise over the civilian executive,” says RSF of press freedom in Pakistan.
The attack on Toor is the latest in recent months to target a journalist considered to be critical of the country’s military and the government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
In July 2020, prominent television journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted by unidentified men outside a school in the capital Islamabad and was released after being held for 12 hours at an undisclosed location. Jan said that he was bound, gagged and beaten during this period.
No arrests have been made in connection with that attack.
In April, Absar Alam, a senior journalist based in Islamabad, was shot in the abdomen while out for a walk at a park near his home. Alam survived the attack. No arrests have been made in that case, police say.
Since 1992, at least 61 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks in Pakistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
PM Khan’s reign has seen a marked increase in threats, intimidation and outright censorship targeting the country’s press, with journalists and editors telling Al Jazeera they are barred from covering certain topics, especially related to the military’s increased role in governance and politics.
Toor, a reporter and producer, has risen to prominence since he launched a YouTube channel for his journalism in December. Since then, the channel, where Toor reports and comments on events that are often not covered by mainstream media, has gained more than 24,000 subscribers.
In a video statement released hours after the attack, he told his followers how his gag started to come loose as he lay on the floor of his bathroom being beaten by the three men.
“I started screaming […] I had figured out that there is no point in staying quiet, they will just beat me more,” he said.
The three attackers, he said, stopped beating him and ordered him to keep quiet as they exited his apartment.
CCTV footage from the apartment building showed three men leaving Toor’s apartment, wearing clothes that match the description he had given in the police report.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim