‘No space for dissent’: Pakistan journalists decry torture of vlogger and increasing government censorship

·3-min read
<p>Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, who was beaten and injured by three unidentified men, during a demonstration  on 28 May, 2021.</p> (AP)

Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, who was beaten and injured by three unidentified men, during a demonstration on 28 May, 2021.

(AP)

Journalists in Pakistan are voicing their anger at the shrinking space for freedom of speech and dissent in the country after YouTube journalist Asad Ali Toor was attacked by unknown men.

On 25 May, three unidentified men barged into the house of Mr Toor, who is known for posting critical videos about the government and the military, and beat him up. They identified themselves as officers from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and accused him of taking money from foreigners, he said.

Narrating the incident, he said the men forced him to shout patriotic slogans supporting the army and the ISI and he tried to do that despite being gagged.

Mr Toor told The Guardian: “I was told that the army and ISI were not happy with my journalism. While torturing me, they asked me why I had named ISI and the army in my reporting.”

The ISI has denied any involvement in beating Mr Toor.

Mr Toor also lamented that there is no space for freedom of speech and dissent in Pakistan. “If one criticises the military and Imran Khan, they face physical and online attacks. The level of frustration has rocketed. They can’t tolerate criticism by journalists,” he said.

He said that some journalists who supported him have been harassed, including prominent writer Hamid Mir.

Mr Mir addressed a gathering on 28 May in Islamabad which was called to show solidarity with Mr Toor.

He said at the gathering: “If you keep breaking into our homes to assault us, we will also respond by making public whatever is happening inside your homes, since we don’t have guns and tanks like you.”

He was later told by the management of Geo News that he could no longer host his show Capital Talk. Mr Mir recently wrote that “maybe I spoke too much. But I spoke too much because I have suffered too much.”

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In an opinion piece for The Print, he said he neither named any person nor institution in his speech because he “only wanted to tell these invisible people that ‘enough is enough’.”

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists have also condemned the recent attacks on journalists in Pakistan. “Those suspected of criminal responsibility should be promptly and fairly prosecuted,” they said in a statement.

They also called on the government to rescind policies that protect the authorities from criticism and instead promote space for public debate and free expression.

Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists, said: “It is disturbing to see the space for dissent and providing information of public importance rapidly shrink in Pakistan, with journalists as well as human rights defenders particularly at risk of censorship, physical violence, and arbitrary detention.”

A new ordinance proposed by the Khan government to regulate the media has also been widely criticised, described by media and rights groups as akin to “media martial law.”

It proposes to repeal all current media-related laws and merge them. It conceives setting up a new Pakistan Media Development Authority which will solely be responsible for the regulation of print, broadcast and digital media in Pakistan, according to Dawn. The authority will also determine the wages of media employees.

In an editorial on Wednesday, Dawn said the if the ordinance is enacted, it will “erase all critical voices from print, electronic and digital platforms through a system of coercive censorship that will allow only a pliant media to survive.”

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has also raised objections to the draft of the ordinance, saying it reflects “a mindset hostile to the concept of people’s freedom of expression and right to information.”

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