Journalist Salman Masood courtesy twitter

Journalist Salman Masood courtesy twitter

(New York) – The raid by a Pakistani paramilitary force on a journalist’s house is just the latest attempt by Pakistan’s security agencies to intimidate journalists who criticize the government and military, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 12, 2016, soldiers from the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers entered and, without a warrant, searched the house of Salman Masood, a journalist working for the New York Times. In November 2015, the military allegedly pressured the Lahore-based Daily Times to shut down an editorial columnist.

“The Pakistan Rangers’ warrantless search of journalist Salman Masood’s home is an outrage, but only the latest security force outrage against journalists in Pakistan,” said Brad AdamsAsia director at Human Rights Watch. “A raid on a journalist’s home demands not just a government apology, but a serious Pakistani government investigation of the security forces’ intimidation of journalists.”

The government should rescind official policies that shield the military from criticism and instead ensure that space for public debate and free speech is protected both from extremist groups and the security establishment, Human Rights Watch said.

Masood said that on the morning of January 12, armed men in uniforms of the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary organization, demanded to search his house. They refused to show identification or a search warrant. Masood initially refused entry, saying that young children and other family members were in the house, and called senior police officials for an explanation. The troops left but returned a half-hour later, accompanied by women police constables. Masood said that the security forces claimed to be searching for a terror suspect, but without explanation opened cupboards and drawers, and went through his personal belongings.

The Interior Ministry issued an apology later that day and ordered an inquiry into the raid on Masood. The government asserted that the action was part of a broader search operation in the neighborhood. However, only one other house was searched raising serious concerns that the raid’s purpose was to harass and intimidate Masood, Human Rights Watch said. Masood has reported extensively about government policies and the role of the military.

In May 2013 the Interior Ministry, under pressure from the military, ordered the longtime New York Times bureau chief, Declan Walsh, to be expelled from the country on 72 hours’ notice.

Pakistani journalists have long faced life-threatening obstacles to their work, including harassment, intimidation, assault, kidnapping, and arbitrary arrest and detention. These threats come from the government, security forces, and militant groups. Increasingly, it is security forces who are pressuring editors and media owners to shut down critical voices.

The stifling environment for Pakistani journalists was highlighted by the case of Dr. Mohammed Taqi, a well-known columnist for the Daily Times who was often critical of the security establishment. Taqi reported that on November 27, he received an email from one of his editors that read:

It is with an extremely heavy heart that I regret to inform you that Daily Times will be unable to accommodate your daring and conscientious articles. Due to the climate under which print media operates in these times such pieces are constantly being put under scrutiny and so the newspaper with it.

Taqi later wrote a long article criticizing the role of the military in silencing dissent. Taqi wrote, “A six-year association with the Daily Times thus ended under pressure from Pakistan’s almighty army.”

In August the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued a code of conduct for media that seeks to censor any content that “contains aspersions against the judiciary or armed forces.”

Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. More than 35 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan because of their work since 2010. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index placed Pakistan ninth on the list of countries where journalists are murdered without the attackers being prosecuted.

In April 2014 unidentified gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most prominent television anchors, in Karachi. Mir survived the attack and Jang/Geo – his employer and the country’s largest media conglomerate – accused the director general of the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency of involvement in the incident. The government formed a judicial commission to investigate the shooting, but its proceedings remain opaque and no findings have been made public.

Freedom of expression and the media in Pakistan are further constrained by vague and overbroad counterterrorism legislation such as the Protection of Pakistan Act (PPA) and the Fair Trial Act, which give the security agencies expansive powers to conduct surveillance and silence dissent. The proposed cybercrimes bill includes provisions that would allow the government to censor online content and criminalize Internet user activity under extremely broad criteria that could be susceptible to abusive application. The bill would also permit the authorities access to the data of Internet users without any form of judicial review to justify that access.

While terrorist attacks are a genuine concern in Pakistan, limitations on fundamental freedoms must adhere to international standards. Any restrictions need to be prescribed by law, necessary in a democratic society, and proportionate to the aim. The military’s censoring of critical voices falls considerably short of these standards, Human Rights Watch said.

“The security forces’ threats and harassment of journalists make a mockery of Pakistan’s claims of being a democratic society,” Adams said. “Soldiers who become censors are an ugly reminder of military rule.”