Pakistani reporter charged because he investigated former army chief
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Pakistani authorities to drop the clearly trumped-up “tax evasion” charge and other charges brought against a Pakistani reporter based in the United States for the obvious reason that he investigated the wealth amassed by a former army commander.
The co-founder of the Fact Focus investigative website, Ahmad Noorani is facing the possibility of three years in prison in Pakistan on charges of “tax evasion,” the “unwarranted leaking” of confidential tax documents and “abetment” in the dissemination of the documents. His Fact Focus colleague Shahid Aslam is co-accused on the “abetment” charge.
The charges were made in a report filed on 15 December 2022 by two Pakistani government agencies, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). As Noorani resides abroad, he has been labelled as "Ishtehari," an Urdu term that means “proclaimed offender.” It designates someone who has been presumed guilty in absentia without being given the chance to defend themselves before a judge.
According to the charge sheet, of which RSF has seen a copy, Noorani is charged under Section 5 (2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947, Section 4 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and Section 109 of Pakistan’s Penal Code.
The timing is important in this case. The charges were shortly brought after Fact Focus, in November 2022, posted the findings of its investigation into the sudden wealth acquired by Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who stood down from this position at the end of 2022.
As RSF reported – and firmly condemned – at the time, access to the Fact Focus website was blocked in Pakistan on 21 November after it posted its “Bajwa Leaks” story. The blocking was clearly an act of censorship designed to protect a key figure within the military establishment, regarded as an untouchable “state within the state” in Pakistan.
“Let's not be fooled – the tax evasion charges brought against Ahmad Noorani are bogus and are not based on any credible evidence provided by the prosecution. In the absence of evidence to support the charges, we call on the Pakistani prosecutor's office to immediately close this case and take no further action. The credibility of the rule of law in Pakistan depends on it.
In Noorani’s view, there is no mystery about the reason for the charges. “I am being punished simply for doing journalism,” he said. “I want my declaration as ‘proclaimed offender’ to be immediately withdrawn. Such moves are designed to send a message to other investigative journalists to refrain from doing any investigative reporting that involves key government officials.”
This is not the first time that Noorani or those close to him have been the target of intimidation attempts. Noorani nearly died when he was ambushed and attacked by six men armed with knives on an Islamabad street in October 2017. His wife, Ambreen Fatima, was with her children near their home in Lahore in November 2021 when she was attacked by a man with an iron bar, who threatened to kill her and mentioned her husband’s profession.