On August 23, 2022, freelance Pakistani journalist Syed Fawad Ali Shah went missing in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, according to news reports.
Shah had lived in Malaysia as a registered refugee since 2011, according to his wife Syeda, who spoke with CPJ.
Syeda, who asked to be identified by her first name, said that Shah fled Pakistan after he was abducted by agents of the country’s military intelligence agency, the ISI, who held him for three and a half months while beating and threatening him in retaliation for his reporting that unfavorably portrayed Pakistan’s security forces during the U.S. war on terror.
In January 2023, Malaysian Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said in a press conference that Shah had been deported in late August at the request of Pakistani authorities, who alleged that he was a police officer subject to disciplinary proceedings.
Syeda told CPJ that Shah never worked as a police officer, and she believed the ISI worked with Malaysian authorities to repatriate him in retaliation for his journalism. While in exile, Shah wrote about politics and alleged corruption in Pakistan, particularly within law enforcement agencies. He also wrote about refugee issues in Malaysia.
On February 8, 2023, Syeda learned that Shah was being held at the Adiala Jail in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, and visited him there the following day. Shah told her that authorities had held him for five months in an underground cell in Islamabad, where they abused him, she said.
In a petition filed at an Islamabad magistrate and dated February 7, 2023, which CPJ reviewed, the Cyber Crime Circle of the Islamabad division of the Federal Investigation Agency claimed that Shah was arrested on January 26, 2023, in relation to an investigation opened the previous January for alleged offenses under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and three sections of the penal code pertaining to defamation, criminal intimidation, and obstruction of a public servant. CPJ has repeatedly documented how the PECA has been used to detain, investigate, and harass journalists in retaliation for their work.
The first information report in that case, which opened the investigation, accuses Shah of disseminating “false, frivolous and fake” information about Pakistani civil servants, including Interior Ministry official Naqeeb Arshad, through a Malaysian WhatsApp account and unspecified posts on the Twitter account Bureaucracy, according to CPJ’s review of the report.
The Bureaucracy account, which has around 3,200 followers and covers politics and alleged corruption in Pakistan, posted allegations in January 2022 that Arshad had solicited bribes in exchange for visa extensions. CPJ called Arshad’s office and emailed the Interior Ministry for comment, but did not receive any replies.
Syeda denied that Shah operated that profile, which most recently posted on October 10, 2022, after his disappearance.
Syeda and Imaan Mazari-Hazir, Shah’s lawyer, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, said that Shah’s legal team filed a bail application in that case in mid-February, and then on February 18 authorities transferred Shah from the Adiala Jail to the Peshawar Central Jail, in northwest Pakistan, without informing his family or lawyers.
Shah was transferred as part of a separate investigation opened in December 2020, which accused him of spreading “false, fallacious and malicious contents” about police officials using an anonymous profile on a WhatsApp group also named Bureaucracy, according to Mazari-Hazir and CPJ’s review of the first information report in that case. CPJ was unable to review the content of that WhatsApp group.
The journalist’s wife and lawyer told CPJ that police have not presented in court any specific examples of content by the Bureaucracy Twitter account or the anonymous WhatsApp account that they allege Shah wrote, or any evidence that would show he operated the Twitter account.
Syeda told CPJ that she deeply fears for the safety of herself, her family, and her husband. While traveling to Malaysia in December, she received numerous calls from unknown individuals she suspected were ISI officers, who warned her to stop searching for her husband, she said. Since returning to her home outside Peshawar in January, ISI officials have repeatedly visited her home, warning her to stay silent regarding her husband’s disappearance and not to get involved in the matter, she told CPJ.
CPJ emailed the Malaysian Home Ministry, the Pakistani Federal Investigation Agency, and the High Commission of Pakistan in Malaysia for comment, but did not receive any replies.
CPJ also contacted Amna Baloch, Pakistan’s ambassador to Malaysia, and Marriyum Aurangzeb, Pakistan’s information minister, via messaging app, but did not receive any replies. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media wing, did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment submitted through its website.
Shah was not included in CPJ’s most recent census of journalists imprisoned around the world as of December 1, 2022, because CPJ was not aware of his imprisonment at the time.
[Editor’s note: This article has been changed in its penultimate paragraph to correct the spelling of Baloch’s name.]