Pakistan Urged to Release Journalist, Unblock Access to Social Media

Islamabad — Free speech advocates are urging Pakistan authorities Friday to unconditionally release an independent journalist and remove a month-long blockade of X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Journalist Asad Ali Toor, who has nearly 300,000 followers on X and more than 160,000 subscribers to his YouTube political affairs channel, was arrested on February 26 by the Federal Investigation Agency, or FIA. 

He was accused of running a “malicious” and “anti-state” drive through his social media platforms against Pakistani government officials and state institutions.

Toor was frequently broadcasting commentaries critical of the chief justice of Pakistan and the country’s powerful military establishment before being arrested. 

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, demanded Friday that authorities immediately and unconditionally release Toor, return his devices, and stop harassing him in retaliation for his journalistic work.

“The ongoing detention and investigation of journalist Asad Ali Toor, as well as authorities’ seizure of his devices and pressure to disclose his sources, constitute an egregious violation of press freedom in Pakistan,” the CPJ statement quoted its Asia program coordinator Beh Lih Yi as saying.

She urged Pakistani authorities to stop using the country’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and other “draconian laws” to persecute journalists and silence critical reporting and commentary.

In a remand application filed in court on March 3, the FIA stated that Toor was “non-cooperative to disclose his sources of information,” even though local laws protect journalists’ right to privacy and non-disclosure of their sources.

Matiullah Jan, a well-known Pakistani journalist with 1 million X followers and more than 270,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, criticized Toor’s arrest, saying he is being denied the due process of law. 

Jan told VOA that instead of doing justice, the due process of law has been used to punish a journalist. 

“Arresting a journalist who is already cooperating in the inquiry, putting handcuffs on him and pushing him around to produce him in court, not allowing his family members to meet him. This is all abuse of the process of law against a journalist for reporting (critical) things,” Jan said. 

Toor is the second Pakistani journalist to have been arrested over the past month. In late February, authorities in the country’s most populous province of Punjab took a nationally known journalist, Imran Riaz Khan, into custody on alleged corruption charges. 

The jailed Khan denied any wrongdoing and told the judge during a recent court hearing that he was being punished for criticizing alleged state-sponsored rigging in the February 8 national elections. 

Pakistan’s elections were marred by allegations of widespread voter fraud to enable pro-military parties to win the elections, charges officials rejected.

X remains inaccessible 

Meanwhile, access to social media platform X remained restricted in Pakistan Friday, nearly a month after services were suspended amid the election rigging charges. 

Users in Pakistan, including government officials and ministers, bypass the ban through virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow users to hide their identities and locations online. 

Human rights defenders and even Pakistani lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties have criticized the restriction, saying it has placed Pakistan in a group of countries that have imposed long-term or permanent bans on international social media platforms.

A group of nearly 60 local and foreign civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and prominent individual activists, in a collective statement Wednesday, criticized internet service disruptions in Pakistan, saying they “infringe upon the fundamental rights” of access to information and freedom of expression.

The statement said, “The arbitrary blocking of platforms, including the prolonged and unannounced disruption of “X” since 17 February 2024, is a sobering illustration of growing digital censorship in the country.” 

It called on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s newly elected coalition government to immediately issue a clarification outlining the reasons and legal basis for blocking X and other affected platforms.

Government officials have denied any disruption in internet services, saying they have “not seen any directive” to ban X. Independent monitor groups and Pakistani users have rejected the official claims.

“Metrics show that X has now been restricted in #Pakistan for three weeks; the popular microblogging platform has been largely unavailable since 17 February following a series of social media shutdowns targeting political opposition and an election day telecoms blackout,” NetBlocks, a global cybersecurity monitor, said on X on March 9. 

Authorities shut down mobile internet services across Pakistan on election day, citing terrorism threats to the voting process. The move, however, triggered domestic and international backlash and fueled vote-rigging allegations.

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