Pakistani Journalist Freed, But Anti-Terror Laws Still Threaten Media

A Pakistani journalist was freed from prison last week after an appeals court overturned his five-year sentence and conviction under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law.

Nasrullah Chaudhry, a journalist for the daily Urdu-language newspaper Nai Baat, was convicted in December of possessing banned literature and helping a terrorist organization.

Pakistan’s journalism community described the Karachi court ruling on April 8 as a breath of fresh air, but said cyber and anti-terrorism laws are still being used to intimidate the media.

The laws were enacted amid a surge in terror attacks during the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Rights groups criticized sweeping powers that allowed security agencies to detain and question suspects without court approval and warned that the laws could be used to silence those who criticize security and military agencies.

More than 60 journalists were charged under anti-terror laws last year, including 50 from Sindh province, according to the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors’ media freedom report.

The headquarters of many Pakistani news outlets are based in Sindh province’s capital, Karachi.

Journalists said the charges were connected to their reporting that offended ruling officials and security agencies, the report found.

In Chaudhry’s case, the charge sheet accused him of having books about the Taliban and links to an alleged al-Qaida leader.

At the appeal, Chaudhry’s lawyer Muhammad Farooq denied that the journalist published, printed or disseminated banned literature, or that he acted as editor for books that incited hatred against the state and state institutions. The alleged links to the al-Qaida leader were also discredited.

Farooq told VOA the prosecution failed to prove the allegations in the appeals court. He said that the material allegedly recovered from Chaudhry had been printed in 2011 and 2012. The journalist was neither a writer nor a publisher and none of his articles were featured in the literature.

Farooq said there were discrepancies in the charge sheet and witness accounts of Chaudhry’s arrest, including whether police confiscated documents at the time.

The defense said police did not remove anything from the journalist’s house at the time of his arrest.

“So, these doubts were already there on prosecution’s story, and finally the [higher] court declared that the allegations against him not proven,” Farooq said.

Chaudhry said he was clueless about the reasons for his arrest.

“My work, my published articles are all in the open and many of my journalists’ colleagues know me personally,” he said. “I think the case against me may be the result of wrong information or a misjudgment. But whatever it was, such an arrest casts doubts and raises more questions rather providing any answers.”

Nai Baat Media Group, which owns Nai Baat, also denied the allegations against Chaudhry.

“Chaudhry’s arrest was an attempt to restrict the freedom of press,” Nasrullah Malik, executive director of Nai Baat Media Group, said in a video message sent to VOA.

“Our organization believes in and struggles for ensuring the freedom of expression in Pakistan,” Malik said, adding that prosecuting a journalist “is a clear attempt to restrict this freedom.”

Pakistan’s government and the Sindh provincial government did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment.

Shortly after Chaudhry’s arrest in 2018, the government of Sindh province said it would investigate his case and called his treatment “unacceptable.”

Journalists across Pakistan have said attempts by the government to protect the press from intimidation have fallen short.

The government was criticized earlier this year after it merged a journalist safety bill, prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights, with proposals drafted by the Ministry of Communications.

The merged proposal calls for a commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, to investigate complaints against the government and security and intelligence agencies.

The draft legislation also says the government should ensure that anti-terror and national security laws will not be used to harass or arrest the media.

But journalists said the government did not consult with them about the draft bill and warned that merging the two measures could cause delays when media are under threat.

Jailings of journalists are relatively infrequent in Pakistan, data from an annual census produced by the press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) show.

However, a report by CPJ found that intimidation tactics and restrictions on access have limited press freedom in Pakistan.

The rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also ranks the country 142 on its 2019 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 constant maneuvering by the military and military intelligence to subjugate civilians,” the RSF index said of Pakistan.