Islamabad, Pakistan – At least 23 Pakistani journalists have been “targeted” under the country’s cyber-crime law over the past two years, setting up a “painful pattern” of using the threat of legal action to silence dissidents, a new media rights watchdog reported.
Pakistan-based organization, the Freedom Network, released its report in line with International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, which is being held around the world on Tuesday.
The “charges” against Pakistani journalists accused of “bringing the soldiers to disgrace”, “bringing disgrace to the judiciary” and “bringing disgrace to the intelligence services”. In at least one case, a journalist is accused of engaging in “rebellion”.
Cases under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA, also known as “cybercrime law”) were often linked to allegations under sentencing code, criminal cases registered with 13 of the 23 journalists.
At least nine journalists have been arrested in connection with the interrogation, six of whom were forced to obtain bail after spending up to 60 days in jail during the interrogation.
Pakistan’s flagship printing press includes an active television news channel, with numerous channels providing 24/7 live news broadcasts and evening news analysis shows. There are also dozens of print newspapers and, increasingly, online stores or YouTube channels run by journalists.
Increasingly, however, human rights organizations and journalists have warned that journalists are facing additional restrictions from authorities not to cover specific topics, especially allegations of military and political development.
Non-compliant news channels have seen their signals abruptly tested, newspapers have seen disruptions in their distribution, and individual journalists have been abducted after submitting news that is considered critical of the military.
The investigation of 2019 listed the types of coercion used to enforce a new research code. Growing up, the government has used cybercrime law as a way to identify journalists, the report found.
Earlier this month, the government expanded (PDF) its capacity under cybercrime law, including a clause that “requires” all internet service providers and social media companies to break encryption and share user data with investigators if necessary.
Pakistan’s powerful military has ruled the country directly for almost half of its 74-year history, and is accused by political opposition parties of rigging the 2018 elections to put Prime Minister Imran Khan in power. Khan and the military have denied the allegations.
The international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (known by its French abbreviation RSF), says that “bold research” actions and the military’s influence on the government have “increased dramatically” since Khan took office.
“After focusing on traditional media, [the military and intelligence service] has begun to clean up the Internet and social media in a way that does not appeal to them,” reads Pakistan’s RSF national profile.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index 2021.