Private television network ARY News is facing a formal charge of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act by broadcasting images of insurgents in Balochistan province attacking the last residence of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
In formal terms, the charge is defined as a “First Information Report.” Since April, charges have been filed at least 12 times against news organizations in similar circumstances.
“Legal harassment against media in Balochistan must cease immediately,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Though recourse to the legal system is an inalienable right, media organizations are fulfilling their mission of providing information when they cover the activities of insurgent groups in the region.”
Coverage should not be confused with allegiance to the insurgents’ cause, the press freedom organization said. For that reason, invoking anti-terrorism law is unjust.
“Pakistani authorities should recognize the threat faced by media who refuse to cover Balochi armed groups,” Reporters Without Borders said. “In effect, Balochi journalists are caught in the cross-fire between armed groups and the government. Pakistani authorities must guarantee journalists’ safety and their freedom to do their work.”
For its part, the government has denied filing the FIR against ARY News. “The government believes in freedom of expression and respects the judicial system,” said the Chief Minister of Balochistan, Abdel Malik Baluch during a session of the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan. The filing of the charge was the result of a misunderstanding, he said.
Nevertheless, the charge filed by Quetta police remains open. It names Salman Iqbal, chief executive of Ary News, executive director Owais Tohid, and bureau chiefs Shahid Rind of Quetta and Sabir Shakir of Islamabad.
The network also faces a charge of insulting the court, based on critical comments that were broadcast concerning the chief justice of Pakistan. Iqbal was summoned to the Supreme Court on 27 august.
Tohid of ARY News said on his Facebook page that being accused of terrorism by Baloch authorities was a “strange experience.”
Last April, the High Court of Balochistan opened legal proceedings against several newspapers – Mashriq, Express, Intikhab and Jang – as well as the Geo News TV network, following their coverage of statements from the Balochistan Liberation Army. The charges were dropped following apologies by the editors.
The following month, police in Quetta filed charges against seven newspapers - Jang, Mashriq, Intikhab, Express, Qudrat, Baakhabar and Zamana – for having published a statement by the outlawed militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
On 23 August, the Islamabad High Court barred the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority from taking punitive action against Ary News for having broadcast on 14 June images of the attack on the residence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Ziarat, Balochistan. A hearing has been scheduled in the case on 30 August, at which time the regulatory agency and the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage will present their arguments.
News media in Balochistan are under threat from security agencies as well as armed separatist and Islamist groups. Reporters Without Borders classifies them all as “predators of freedom of information.” Since the beginning of 2013, four journalists have been killed in the province.
On 10 January, Imran Shaikh, Saifur Rehman and Mohammed Iqbal were killed in a double bombing aimed at the Shiite community in Quetta. On 1 March, Mehood Ahmed Afridi was shot to death in Kalat. The Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the killing.
Reporters Without Borders has named Balochistan one of the 10 most dangerous places in the world for journalists.