Journalists in Pakistan remain under threat

New York, October 25, 2010–Pakistan must take immediate steps to rein in police and government agencies that threaten reporters. Two cases in recent days–those of journalists Hafiz Imran and Umar Cheema–demonstrate how reporting on stories that are critical of the authorities can bring officials’ wrath down on reporters.

“It’s deeply disturbing to hear that journalists are receiving death threats under Pakistan’s new civilian government, just as they did under the former military regime,” said Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator. “Abductions, threats and intimidation are increasingly commonplace at both the local and federal levels.”

Hafiz Imran, an Urdu-language television reporter for the Dunya News media organization, told CPJ that he fled Pakistan about two weeks ago after receiving anonymous death threats over the phone, which were directed at him and his family. He also told CPJ that a group of more than 10 men, including several dressed in police uniforms, visited his house on the night of August 29 and threatened his life.

“I was thrown against a wall and severely beaten when they came to my home,” Imran told CPJ in Urdu during a phone conversation on Monday from Sharjah, a coastal city in the United Arab Emirates. He did not tell CPJ his immediate plans, but said he worries that returning to Pakistan would mean getting arrested by police who were displeased with his reporting.

Imran had reported extensively on the August 15 public killing of two brothers in his home town of Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab province, pressing the police and courts to solve the case. The case received wide coverage in Pakistan and internationally.

Umar Cheema, who was abducted, beaten, and humiliated over the weekend of September 4 and 5 in Islamabad, told CPJ Monday that he was tailed by a black Land Rover on Friday night in Islamabad for more than 20 minutes. He managed to lose his pursuers when he pulled into a dense housing development in a suburb south of Islamabad, he said.

“They were clearly trying to intimidate us,” Cheema told CPJ. “They made sure we knew they were there.” Cheema believes that Pakistani authorities were following him to learn new whereabouts, since he moved into a new house after his abduction to protect his family. His wife, two-year-old son, parents and sister were in the car with him on the evening of the pursuit.

Cheema has kept his assault case in front of the public by speaking frankly about the brutal treatment he suffered at the hands of his captors. Two government panels are investigating his abduction: a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and a Judicial Commission. The JIT has the power to bring criminal charges, but its investigations seem likely to end without reaching any firm conclusions, Cheema told CPJ.

“I have some hope for the Judicial Commission, but I hope I am not being overly optimistic,” he told CPJ. The commission, he added, seems likely to conclude its deliberations in a month or so. Though the commission cannot bring criminal charges, it can refer its findings to the government for further legal action.

Cheema and much of the Pakistani media community blame government security agencies, including the powerful Inter Services Intelligence group, for his abduction.