Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani court acquitted the owner and editor-in-chief of the country’s largest independent news conglomerate in a case related to an alleged violation of regulations in a real estate purchase in the eastern city of Lahore in 1986.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman was arrested in 2020 after authorities accused him of colluding with prominent political leader Nawaz Sharif, a former three-time prime minister who was chief minister of Punjab province at the time, to illegally buy a plot of land. He was granted bail by the Supreme Court in November 2020 after eight months in jail.
Rehman’s Jang news group, which includes popular news television station Geo News, Urdu-language newspaper Jang and English newspaper The News, has been critical of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, and it has faced service suspensions and other forms of censorship since Khan came to power.
An anti-corruption court in Lahore acquitted him of all charges on Monday, senior Geo News official Muaaz Ahsan told Al Jazeera. He denies all charges against him.
Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist, with media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking it 145th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom index for 2021.
“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 in its country profile of Pakistan.
“The influence of this military ‘establishment,’ which cannot stand independent journalism, has increased dramatically since Imran Khan became prime minister in July 2018.”
‘One side of the political divide’
In 2019, an Al Jazeera investigation found that Pakistani journalists had been facing increased censorship, including harassment, pressure on news organisations and unannounced television signal or newspaper distribution suspensions, since Khan came to power.
In May 2021, Rehman’s Geo News suspended prominent television news anchor Hamid Mir from hosting his nightly news talk show after he made remarks critical of the country’s powerful military, which has directly ruled the country for roughly half of its history.
Mir had made the comments at a protest against the assault of another Pakistani journalist, Asad Ali Toor, who is also known for his views critical the government and military.
Sharif, who is Khan’s main political rival and the head of the PML-N political party, has been the focus of Khan’s anti-corruption drive, launched in 2018 after he swept to power in an election whose results rights groups and opposition parties disputed.
In July, while granting bail to a prominent PML-N party leader in a corruption case, the Pakistani Supreme Court noted the country’s anti-corruption watchdog appeared to be biased in its proceedings.
“The bureau seems reluctant in proceeding against people on one side of the political divide even in respect of financial scams of massive proportion, while those on the other side are being arrested and incarcerated for months and years without providing any sufficient cause,” said Supreme Court Justice Maqbool Baqar in a strongly worded verdict.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim