A man walks past the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 29, 2021. Journalists Maham Javaid and Haseem uz Zaman Khan are facing criminal defamation charges for tweets they made concerning a sexual harassment case. (AFP/Aamir Qureshi)

Pakistani journalists charged with criminal defamation over tweets in sexual harassment case

On September 28, 2020, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency filed criminal defamation charges against Maham Javaid, a freelance journalist, and Haseem uz Zaman Khan, an editor and writer for the English-language news website of local broadcaster GEO News, along with seven others, for their involvement in an alleged “smear campaign” against the singer and actor Ali Zafar, according to news reports.

Maham and Haseem told CPJ separately via messaging app that they denied being involved in such a campaign. They said that hearings in their cases were ongoing as of February 2021.

Zafar’s lawyer, Ambreen Qureshi, told CPJ via email that she had provided evidence to the Federal Investigation Agency of the journalists’ alleged involvement with “Shafi’s team.” In 2018, singer Meesha Shafi accused Zafar of sexual harassment; Zafar has also sued her for defamation, according to those news reports.

The charges stem from tweets by Javaid, who has written about women’s issues for various publications, and Khan, who has covered sexual harassment among other topics for GEO News, that authorities allege repeated unverified allegations, in violation of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, according to those reports. If convicted, the journalists could face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million rupees (US$13,665), according to reports.

In Javaid’s tweets, posted on April 19, 2018, she described witnessing an alleged incident of sexual harassment by Zafar. CPJ reviewed those tweets, but the journalist’s account has since been set to private.

In tweets posted from 2018 to 2020, which have been taken down or set to private, but which CPJ reviewed, Khan also commented on and repeated the allegations against Zafar.

Qureshi told CPJ that Zafar was “a victim of a smear campaign of which Mr. Haseem and Ms Maham were part of, along with others,” and accused them of making false allegations without proof.

Maham and Haseem told CPJ said they stand by their tweets, and would not apologize for publishing what they believe to be accurate information.

CPJ emailed the Federal Investigation Agency for comment, but did not immediately receive any response.