Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor is seen on his YouTube channel Asad Toor Uncensored.
Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor is seen on his YouTube channel Asad Toor Uncensored. He has been held in detention since February 26, 2024. (Screenshot: Asad Toor Uncensored/YouTube)

Pakistan court remands journalist Asad Ali Toor in cybercrime case

New York, March 15, 2024—Pakistan authorities must immediately and unconditionally release independent journalist Asad Ali Toor, return his devices, and cease harassing him in retaliation for his journalistic work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On March 8, a court in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, ordered Toor be sent to jail on a 14-day judicial remand pending investigation, following 11 days of detention in the custody of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), according to news reports.

Three days earlier, FIA officials raided Toor’s Islamabad home, seizing his mobile phone and a portable internet device, the journalist’s lawyer, Imaan Mazari-Hazir, told CPJ.

Toor was arrested on February 26, after appearing for questioning earlier that day in relation to an alleged anti-judiciary campaign at the FIA’s cybercrime wing. Three days earlier, Toor was questioned for about eight hours without having access to his legal team.

However, the FIA first information report (FIR) opening an investigation into Toor accuses the journalist of “anti-state” rather than anti-judiciary commentary, saying he created a “malicious/obnoxious and explicit campaign” against “civil servants/ government officials and state institutions” through his political affairs YouTube channel Asad Toor Uncensored and account on X, formerly known as Twitter, in violation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA).

On Thursday, a special FIA court adjourned Toor’s bail hearing until Monday, March 18, after the agency’s special prosecutor and the investigating officer did not attend the hearing. However, on Friday, the Islamabad High Court ordered that Toor’s bail application be heard on Saturday, March 16, noting that the special court adjourned bail proceedings “without any justification or basis,” according to a copy of the order reviewed by CPJ.

“The ongoing detention and investigation of journalist Asad Ali Toor, as well as authorities’ seizure of his devices and pressure to disclose his sources, constitute an egregious violation of press freedom in Pakistan,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Beh Lih Yi. “Authorities must cease using the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and other draconian laws to persecute journalists and silence critical reporting and commentary.”

Toor is accused of violating three sections of the PECA pertaining to glorification of an offense, cyberterrorism, and cyberstalking, according to the FIR. CPJ has repeatedly documented the use of the law to detain and harass journalists for their work.

A Supreme Court order on Monday stated that the FIR against Toor was “lacking in material particulars,” meaning it failed to establish how the journalist committed the alleged offenses, Mazari-Hazir said.

Toor went on a hunger strike from February 28 to March 3 to protest his detention, Mazari-Hazir told CPJ.

On Wednesday, Mazari-Hazir and another lawyer representing Toor received a court order granting permission to meet their client in eastern Punjab province’s Adiala jail. However, jail authorities denied them access later that day following a controversial two-week ban on all public visits due to alleged “security” threats in the complex, where former Prime Minister Imran Khan is also held.

Toor informed his lawyers that while in FIA custody, he was held with around 20 to 30 people in a small cell where it was difficult to sit, Mazari-Hazir said, adding that authorities interrogated the journalist multiple times overnight, depriving him of sleep, and pressured him to disclose his sources, which he refused to do. In a remand application filed in court on March 3, the FIA stated that Toor was “non-cooperative to disclose his sources of information.”

Pakistan’s Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2021 protects journalists’ right to privacy and the non-disclosure of their sources.

Prior to his arrest, Toor had reported critically on the chief justice of Pakistan and the country’s military establishment.

CPJ called and texted Pakistan information minister Attaullah Tarrar for comment on the case but did not receive a response.

Editor’s note: The sixth paragraph has been updated with details of a Friday court order from the Islamabad High Court.