Three Pak journalists, critical of Imran Khan govt, face sedition charges

New Delhi (NVI): As Pakistan gets intolerant of criticism of its government and military, and stands exposed for launching a media crackdown recently, three journalists in the country are now facing sedition charges under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

Journalists Asad Toor, Bilal Farooqi, and Absar Alam have all been charged with sedition between September 11 and September 16 for publishing allegedly ‘objectionable’ and ‘derogatory’ material online, according to a statement by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

The IFJ, along with its Pakistan affiliate, have called on the authorities to reign in the broad powers of this Act to ensure no journalists are charged solely for criticising government officials and institutions.

According to the IFJ statement, Asad Toor was charged on September 12 after a public complaint citing that he had “used derogatory language to refer high-level government institutions, including the Pakistan Army.”

The First Information Report (FIR) detailing Toor’s offences states he had breached PECA’s Sections 499 on defamation, 505 on statements conducing public mischief and 20 on offences against the dignity of a person to name a few, IFJ said.

Another journalist, Farooqi was detained on September 11 following a complaint claiming that resulted in a FIR claiming he had “defamed” the Pakistan Military on social media.

Similarly, Alam faced a FIR for allegedly using derogatory language against “state institutions and personalities.” Both Farooqi and Alam were charged with sedition under PECA’s Section 20.

“Prosecuting journalists for fulfilling their role as a check on government powers and a critical voice of government institutions is inherently undemocratic. Pakistan’s freedom of speech and ability to function as a democracy is greatly threatened by the implications of these sedition charges and their associated legislation,” the IFJ statement read.

The draconian PECA Act of Pakistan government has drawn criticism before also its implementation due its secretive conception, and once implemented sparked grave concerns over its criminalization of speech and the unchecked powers it gave to authorities to both curtail and prosecuted it.

The law was supposedly created to “check extremist content, prosecute hate speech and curb online harassment of women” but has had far reaching implications above and beyond these pursuits, such as Section 37 which gives “unbridled powers” to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to restrict freedom of expression by blocking/removing online content, IFJ said.

The PFUJ Secretary General Rana Muhammad Azeem said: “The PFUJ believes in freedom of speech & expression and urges the authorities to be cautious and have thorough investigations before charging any media person, in accordance with the law of the land.”

“The ruling party must reconsider this broad and sweeping legislation that has been shown to give the government the power to remove critical voices from public discourse. These recent sedition charges will undoubtedly influence the work of journalists in Pakistan and push the country’s media into passive submission. Journalists need a safe environment to both criticise and hold government officials and institutions accountable or democracy cannot function,” IFJ statement added.

Recently, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks that there is no media crackdown had exposed the Pak government’s hypocrisy on the press freedom, especially at a time when Mir Shakilur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media organization in the country, has been in pretrial detention since March 12 this year.

Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than in 2019.

The United Nations Human Rights Office has also expressed its concern over the increasing instances of threats of violence against journalists and human rights activists in Pakistan.