Mir Shakil-ur Rahman was arrested in Lahore, the capital of the eastern province of Punjab, at the end of a hearing before the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a government anti-corruption agency.
In a “notice” issued on 28 February of which RSF has obtained a copy, the NAB claims that the land in question was allocated to Rahman by Punjab’s then chief minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, “in violation of the relevant laws and rules”.
This is not the first time that the NAB has revived this 34-year-old allegation and, at an earlier hearing on 5 March, Rahman already produced all the documents showing that the land was bought in a perfectly legal manner from a private third party.
The Jang group, whose media outlets including The News, a leading daily newspaper, and the Geo TV network, has long been targeted by the authorities because its journalists don’t content themselves with reproducing the government’s anodyne statements and promises.
“Let’s not be fooled, Shakilur Rahman’s arrest has no legal basis and is clearly an act of harassment designed to bring the Jang media group into line,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific group. “We call for his immediate release. The Pakistani authorities are displaying appalling creativity in their attempts to intimidate journalists who try to work in a completely independent manner.”
After Rahman’s arrest, the Jang group issued a statement describing the background: "During the past 18 months, NAB has sent our reporters, producers, and editors [...] over a dozen notices threatening to shut down our channels [...] due to our reporting, and programmes about the anti-corruption watchdog."
The statement added: “NAB has also, through several means, tried to persuade us to go slow, to stop stories and to do others in its favour at the expense of the full truth.”
The Pakistani authorities have made every effort in the past to restrict what the Jang group’s media outlets publish. In July 2019, for example, a Geo News current affairs programme was disconnected in mid-broadcast during an interview with former President Asif Ali Zardari.
In 2018, transmission of Geo News and all of the four other Geo TV channels was suspended for several days throughout at least 80% of the country in an apparent reprisal for its overly independent news coverage. No official suspension order ever emerged but the military were widely blamed because they control the network distribution cables in every district.
In 2014, Geo News was subjected to a campaign of intimidation after one of its journalists, Hamid Mir, openly accused Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency, of being behind an attempt to kill him.
Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.