Police gather amid a protest against the alleged skewing of Pakistan's national election results in Karachi in February 2024. CPJ called on Pakistan authorities to immediately reveal the whereabouts of freelance journalist Syed Farhad Ali Shah, who was taken from his home at night by unidentified men on May 15. (Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum)

Journalist missing after being seized outside his Pakistan home

New York, May 23, 2024 — Pakistan authorities must immediately reveal the whereabouts of freelance Kashmiri journalist Syed Farhad Ali Shah, who was taken from his home at night by unidentified men over a week ago, and stop intimidating the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

At about 1 a.m. on May 15, four men appeared at Ali Shah’s door as he returned home, dragged him down the stairs, and forced him into a vehicle, according to a copy of a petition filed with the Islamabad High Court later that day, which was reviewed by CPJ, and a journalist familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The men damaged CCTV cameras that recorded the incident, and took a digital video recorder containing camera footage, according to multiple media reports.

At the time of publication, Ali Shah’s whereabouts were still unknown, the journalist’s wife, Syeda Urooj Zainab, told CPJ.

“The secretive, late-night seizure of journalist Syed Farhad Ali Shah is further evidence of an intensifying crackdown on media freedom in Pakistan,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “Authorities must either present Ali Shah in court or immediately release him and ensure that law enforcement agencies do their job of investigating crimes against journalists.”

Zainab told CPJ that she witnessed her husband being taken away by the men, two of whom were dressed in what appeared to be a black uniform. Zainab said she reported the incident to the local police, but they did not open a case to investigate her husband’s disappearance.

In her High Court petition, Zainab requested that Ali Shah be found and produced before the court and that those responsible for his disappearance be identified, investigated, and prosecuted. The petition named the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and the Ministry of Defense, as part which the ISI operates, as well as the Ministry of Interior, Federal Investigative Agency, and Inspector General of Police Islamabad as respondents in the case.

Pakistan’s powerful ISI has previously been accused of forced disappearances – a major issue in Pakistan, where prominent reporters including Imran Riaz Khan, Sami Abraham, Syed Fawad Ali Shah, and Gohar Wazir went missing in 2023.

Zainab told CPJ that she received a call on May 17 on her husband’s number from an unknown person who asked her to withdraw her petition and promised to free the journalist on May 18.

Zainab told CPJ that she did not know who the caller was, but the independent daily Dawn cited a court order that said Zainab was phoned and received text messages from ISI officials who assured her that her husband would be freed the next day. In response, Zainab’s lawyer applied to withdraw the petition and shared a copy of the withdrawal application with ISI officials, but Ali Shah was not released, Dawn said.

“This Court is not satisfied with the working of the Secretary Ministry of Defence as well as officials of ISI as of now there is direct allegation against the agency,” Dawn quoted the court order as saying.

At a hearing on May 20, Justice Mohsin Akhtar ordered the police to inform the head of the ISI that Shah “should be produced at any cost,” Dawn reported, but a defense ministry official said Ali Shah was not in the ISI’s custody.

The defense and interior secretaries were ordered to attend court on May 21, but Zainab told CPJ on May 23 that there had been no further hearings.

With 22,500 followers on the social platform X, Ali Shah has reported critically on protests over rising prices in Pakistan-administered Kashmir since May 11, in which at least three people died.

Separately, on May 18, the Baluchistan police and local administration locked the gates of the Quetta Press Club, in the provincial capital, to prevent a local advocacy group, Baloch Yakjehti Committee (BYC), from holding a seminar, according to media reports and the local non-profit Pakistan Press Foundation.

The BYC, which campaigns against what it calls a genocide against the ethnic Baloch population in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province, planned to hold a conference highlighting the group’s opposition to government plans to build a fence around the port city of Gwadar.

The campaigners broke the locks and the event went ahead, surrounded by a police cordon, those sources said.

Syed Shahzad Nadeem Bukhari, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Islamabad, did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment via messaging app.