Police in Pakistan have launched criminal proceedings against at least six journalists and political talk show hosts in retaliation for their work, defense attorneys told a high court Monday.
A string of identical complaints has been registered with police in several Pakistani cities by so-called “patriotic citizens” over the past couple of days, accusing the journalists of spreading hate against the army and state institutions in their reporting.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan described the cases as “political retaliation” and accused the government of being behind the slew of complaints.
News of the criminal proceedings coincided with a statement issued Monday by Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA), warning digital news outlets and broadcasters against airing content that “ridicules” state institutions, particularly the judiciary and army. A federal institution, PEMRA, which is responsible for the regulation and issuing of broadcast, print, and electronic media licenses, warned that violations could be met with immediate broadcast suspensions and fines.
Pemra had issued a similar warning on May 9.
If formally charged and convicted, the journalists could face up to seven years in prison and fines.
Pakistan ranks 145 out of 180 on the most recent World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Pakistani journalists are routinely subjected to violence, harassment and intimidation, but never before have so many media personnel collectively faced criminal proceedings.
Some of the journalists in question, including Arshad Sharif, host of a popular political talk show on private ARY channel, petitioned a court in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, through their attorneys to seek judicial protection against arrest.
Their attorneys told reporters that they had argued during Monday’s hearing at the Islamabad High Court that the police cases against their clients were solely aimed at harassing and discouraging them from objectively reporting political events.
The chief judge, Athar Minallah, ruling on the multiple petitions, barred federal police from taking into custody any of the journalists working out of Islamabad and advised provincial courts to take similar steps.
The judge also ordered federal authorities to submit details of the police complaints registered in cities across Pakistan when the court reconvenes next month.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government and provincial authorities have not yet commented on the cases but media watchdogs and journalists denounced them as an assault on freedom of the press in Pakistan.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) slammed the registration of cases, or the First Information Reports (FIRs), against Pakistani journalists.
“Journalists should not have to face legal harassment for critical comments on the military or any other institutions in Pakistan,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator in Washington told VOA. “These multiple FIRs should be withdrawn at once.”
CPJ identifies Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists where successive civilian governments and military-led security agencies, commonly referred to as the “establishment,” are routinely accused of intimidating and harassing reporters.