Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with CPJ noting a total of 88 journalist and media worker deaths since 1992.
A Pakistani journalist is taking on the country’s powerful Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) over what he has described as efforts to “harass” and intimidate him in response to his investigative reporting.
Taha Siddiqui, a young award-winning journalist, filed a petition under Article 199 of the constitution in court alleging that the FIA had harassed him over the phone. He gave a public account of a call he received from the FIA, which left him worried not only about his own safety but also about that of his confidential sources.
Around 7 pm on Thursday, 18th May 2007, I received a call from an unknown number. The person on the other end asked me if I was Taha Siddiqui, which I confirmed. He went on to introduce himself from the Counter-Terrorism Department of the Federal Investigation Agency and asked me to appear before him at the FIA headquarters for an interrogation.
After the phone call, Siddiqui filed a petition against the FIA to the Islamabad high court, an unprecedented move by a journalist.
Pakistan’s FIA is a border control, counter-intelligence and security agency that reports to the Ministry of Interior of Pakistan, its investigation jurisdiction includes terrorism, smuggling, espionage, federal crimes and under the recently passed cybercrime law it also deals with crimes committed on the internet.
This incident comes at a time when journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders face routine threats from state and non-state actors. Pakistan has long been the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. According to comprehensive data collected by Committee for Protection of Journalists, 88 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan since 1992.
The violence extends to netizens as well, in the beginning of 2017 as many as five Pakistani activist-bloggers went missing, four of whom are known for their secular and left-leaning views. While four of the five have since returned to their families, activist Samar Abbas remains missing. Most of the bloggers routinely criticised the military and spoke up openly about sectarian violence and terrorism in the country.
Siddiqui has covered terrorism, persecution of minorities, economic instability, corruption, civil-military affairs for multiple foreign publications including The Guardian, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and France 24. He was awarded the Albert Londres Award referred to as the French Pulitzer in 2014 for his work on La guerre de la polio (The Polio War) for France 24. He currently serves as the bureau chief of the World Is One News.
Siddiqui also is an avid social media user and critic of the military. On Twitter, he has referred to the Pakistani army as “#Pindi Boys“. The city of Rawalpindi, often referred to as pindi, is the headquarters for ISI and the term “pindi boys” is often used to refer to ISI officers.
In his petition to the court, Siddiqui explains that he was “reluctant to go to the FIA Headquarters” citing previous reports of journalists who had received similar calls. Customarily, Siddiqui wrote,
[the] person who is to be interrogated sets out to the FIA Headquarters, he is either picked up and disappeared or detained illegally.
On May 24, 2017, the Islamabad high court ordered the FIA to refrain from harassing Siddiqui.
The petition Siddiqui filed with the court reveals alarming details about the harassment he has faced. “It is inconceivable that the counterterrorism department of the FIA should be calling up a journalist who has nothing to do with terrorism and is a person of the pen,” the petition said.
Siddiqui describes the harassment he has faced in addition to the phone call: “the petitioner has noticed that plain-clothed persons have conspicuously been pointing at his house at which the petitioner has taken due precautions,” Siddiqui alleges that this kind of harassment has forced him to restrict his movements; an integral part of his job as a reporter.
Those who are deprived of the freedom of speech will knock the door of justice. This will be a test case for the courts. Asma Jahangir (lawyer of Taha Siddiqui)
Recently, the FIA identified dozens of “suspects” alleging they are involved in an “organised” campaign on social media against the country’s military. Despite strong condemnations from opposition parties and netizens, interior minister Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan ordered the FIA to crackdown online criticism of the armed forces.
An FIA official told Reuters that, “We have received a huge list of suspects, active against national institutions, but we have identified 18 out of over 200 social media activists. They are accused of spreading negative material against the army and other institutions.” Shortly after the statement, a list was circulated online containing names of several netizens, the authenticity of the list couldn’t be confirmed and due to security concerns, we aren’t linking to it.
Despite court orders, the FIA has continued to harass Siddiqui by delivering summons ordering the journalist to appear for questioning at its counter-terrorism department.
He tweeted that social media users in the country are in constant fear.
Journalists who have been critical of the military and intelligence agencies have faced threats, intimidation and physical harm in Pakistan, though these incidents are often underreported.
Senior journalist Hamid Mir, a critic of the military and host of a popular TV-show ‘Capital Talk’ on Geo TV, in Karachi in April 2014 was attacked. He received several bullets by unknown gunmen. Mir blamed the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for the attack, and Geo TV repeatedly aired the picture of Zaheerul Islam, the then head of ISI. The same year another prominent liberal journalist Raza Rumi, known for criticising the Taliban, narrowly escaped death in Lahore. His young driver also was killed in the attack.
Umar Cheema, an investigative journalist and vocal critic of government practice was picked up by intelligence agencies in 2010. He is the only journalist in Pakistan ever to go on record about being tortured in custody. There was no case filed against him. Cheema informed the Committee to Protect Journalists that he was tortured, humiliated and videotaped nude in comprised positions.
Local and global organisations condemn harassment
Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) has urged the FIA to stop harassing Siddiqui despite the court order. In a statement issued on May 26:
“Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency should abide by the Islamabad high court’s order to stop harassing journalist Taha Siddiqui,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, said from Washington, D.C. “Pakistani security forces should not use terrorism as a pretext for targeting journalists.”
The Human Rights Watch also published a detailed statement calling for an end to the crackdown on freedom of expression. Civil rights group, Media for Democracy Pakistan, called out the authorities:
Civil rights group Freedom Network that works on freedom of expression issues in Pakistan condemned the FIA’s alleged harassment of Siddiqui:
Former senator Afrasiab Khattak, from the Awami National Party, called out the hypocrisy of FIA’s crackdown:
Siddiqui’s hearing has been postponed and he’s currently waiting for courts to announce the next date for the hearing. The FIA has not provided any details to the court about their reasons for pursuing Siddiqui. Despite the harassment, Siddiqui has vowed to continue his work and fight for the rights of reporters in the country. By taking this issue to the court, Siddiqui has taken a bold step to challenge state agencies involved in curbing freedom of expression and harassing journalists who are simply doing their job by speaking truth to power.
This article was originally published on Global Voices.