The investigations were ordered in a leaked letter dated 13 March from the Cybercrime Wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), an interior ministry offshoot – a letter that says a great deal about the practices of the Pakistani security services.
In the letter, the Cybercrime Wing’s “additional director” notes that “a targeted social media campaign was planned/executed” against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman during his visit to Pakistan in February, and asks the FIA’s other “additional directors” to investigate the six journalists involved.
But this “conveyed a very disrespectful message” towards the visitor, the letter said, clearly reflecting Pakistani government concern to pamper someone whose potential investments in Pakistan are badly needed by the government and its business allies.
“This kind of harassment of journalists, whose only crime is posting content online that displeases the authorities, is symptomatic of the treatment that the Pakistani political establishment reserves for dissidents,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“This leak is all the more shocking because, throughout the world, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has become a tragic symbol of the destruction of press freedom, a task to which that Pakistani authorities dedicated a great deal of effort in the run-up to the elections in 2018, using intimidation to encourage self-censorship in the traditional media. It is now clear that their new targets are online.”
The six journalists targeted by these investigations by the FIA – the umbrella of all the Pakistani domestic security services – are known for being outspoken on social networks, which are now the only place where they can express themselves freely.
They are Matiullah Jan, Murtanza Solangi, Azaz Syed, Ammar Massod, Umer Cheema and Ahmed Waqas Goraya. Two of the journalists have already lost their jobs for trying to defend their editorial independence, Goraya told RSF.
“Investigations” ordered by the FIA can take very summary forms. Now living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands, Goraya was one of five Pakistani bloggers who were mysteriously abducted in January 2017 and were held for several weeks or months until finally released by their unidentified abductors.
Everything, including the accounts of the victims themselves, indicates that they were abducted by the Pakistani intelligence services with the aim of intimidating those expressing dissident views online.
The FIA arrested Din TV journalist Rizwan Razi on 9 February for posting “defamatory and obnoxious” comments about the judiciary, the government and the intelligence services. He had simply questioned their impartiality.
Pakistan is ranked 139th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.