NEW YORK: The government of Pakistan should "drop politically motivated charges and release Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, an editor with Pakistan’s largest media group", the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement to Islamabad on Friday.
In its statement, the HRW also demanded that "the authorities also stop harassing Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s family members", noting that the 63-year-old Jang Geo Media Group Editor-in-Chief has been in pretrial custody for nearly four months.
"On March 12, 2020, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption watchdog that has been implicated in serious abuses, arrested [MSR] on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. Rehman had requested bail on the grounds that he was in ill-health and posed no flight risk, but on July 8, the Lahore High Court denied him bail," read the statement.
It noted that the very next day, the court heard a NAB petition "seeking the arrest of his wife and four children concerning the same property transaction".
"In 1986, at the time of the property transaction, Rehman’s children were ages 8, 6, 4, and 1," the HRW said.
Brad Adams, Asia director at the HRW, said seeking the children's arrest "for alleged acts when they were hardly more than toddlers shows how ludicrous the case against him is.”
“Pakistani authorities should stop using vague and overbroad anti-corruption laws against dissenting voices,” he said.
The statement noted that Pakistan’s media "operates in a climate of fear".
"Media outlets are under pressure from the authorities not to criticise the government. The Jang Group alleges that, over the past two years, NAB has sent more than a dozen threatening letters to its reporters, editors, and producers for reporting that has been critical of the bureau," the HRW added.
It also noted the latest in the series of curbs placed on the media — the suspension of the license of television channel 24NewsHD by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) on July 3 with “immediate effect” for “noncompliance with its terms of license.”
"On July 7, the Lahore High Court suspended PEMRA’s notification and temporarily allowed the channel to resume transmission," it said, before highlighting: "In some cases, regulatory agencies have blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programmes."
The statement went on to observe that NAB "has been widely criticised for being used for political purposes".
"Created under an ordinance promulgated by the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999, the bureau was granted unchecked powers of arrest, investigation, and prosecution. The bureau may detain people for up to 90 days without charge," noted the human rights body.
It underscored that the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court had ruled in March that NAB had made "arbitrary use of its arrest powers".
“The Pakistani government should cease using the National Accountability Bureau to target journalists, opposition politicians, and outspoken critics,” Adams said. “As a first step, the government should repeal the draconian dictatorship-era laws that have shrunk basic free expression rights.”