ISLAMABAD, Oct 5: Media watchdogs, political and rights activists have voiced concern at the abuse of anti-terrorism and other laws to silence freedom of expression and dissent voices in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).
They have asked the authorities to withdraw Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) and cybercrime law from GB, and drop what they called, the trumped-up charges, against journalists and political activists.
The GB authorities have been accused of intimidating nationalist and progressive political activists as well as journalists by abusing ATA and putting their names on Schedule-IV.
The latest case in point is framing charges against Shabbir Siham, an Islamabad-based journalist, who works for Urdu-language Daily Jinnah newspaper, for writing a story about members of the GB Legislative Assembly.
An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Gilgit summoned Siham, on October 7 for hearing charges of fabrication and extorting a GB minister.
ATC judge Raja Shahbaz Khan in a notice published in local newspapers on September 28 warned that the journalist could be tried in absentia. If convicted, Siham could face up to 14 years in prison.
“Shabbir Siham should not be punished for his reporting on issues of national interest, and he certainly has no business on trial in an anti-terrorism court,” Steven Butler, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) from Washington DC, says.
“Pakistani authorities should immediately drop the charges against him and stop trying to intimidate journalists into silence with excessive legal charges,” he said in a statement posted on the CPJ official website on Wednesday.
According to CPJ, Siham wrote a story in November 2016 for Daily Times in which he claimed some members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) from Gilgit-Baltistan were involved in human trafficking and flesh trade, though he did not name specific members of GBLA. In response, the regional government registered a case accusing him of fabrication.
After the story was published, the region’s press information department director approached the journalist and asked him to stop writing on the topic. Gang members from GB showed up at his home and attempted to bribe him to stop writing about it, CPJ quoted Siham as saying. They then threatened to kill the journalist when he refused their offers, he said.
In January, the GB government’s home secretary formed a fact-finding committee which asked Siham to visit GB to meet with them, but he declined due to safety concerns.
In March, the GB government registered a case against Siham, and the Islamabad police subsequently carried out raids on his home. Consultations between the representatives of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and federal government as well as GB Chief Minister in April led to the formation of a separate three-member fact-finding committee to arbitrate the GB authorities’ response to Siham’s story, but the committee has made no progress, the CPJ says quoting media reports.
DJ Mathal and Sher Nadir Shahi case
The GB authorities have abused anti-terror laws to target journalists before. The regional authorities charged two journalists under the ATA last year; one was arrested and the other went into hiding.
The GB authorities on September 20, 2016, arrested Daulat Jan Mathal, the editor-in-chief of the Daily ‘Bang-e-Sahar’, ‘Baang’, and the news website, ‘Broshal Times’. On October 24, 2016, Sher Nadir Shahi, a poet, writer and editor of the monthly magazine ‘Balawaristan Times’, went into hiding to avoid arrest.
The journalists and two nationalist activists facing charges in the same case are accused of publishing and distributing anti-state material in support of a local nationalist party, the Balawaristan National Front (BNF).In the FIR, police said that the monthly magazine republished banned books. An Islamabad court granted Mathal bail in early October 2016. Later, an ATC in Gilgit revoked the bail, and authorities arrested Mathal who is currently in Gilgit jail.
Mathal halted publication of the Daily Bang-e-Sahar, Baang, and the Broshal Times five months before his arrest amid increased pressure from the regional government and accusations the papers were supporting nationalism in Gilgit-Baltistan.
In an interview with local media before his arrest, Mathal said he had not done anything wrong and that he would fight for the truth and seek justice. Shahi denied any wrongdoing, during an August 2017 interview with CPJ.
Authorities have not set a trial date for either of the two journalists, according to Shahi.
ATA is being used in Pakistan to quell dissent, though recently the Supreme Court has issued a warning to lower courts to apply the act less frequently, according to the newspaper Dawn.
Hasnain Ramal case
Hasnain Ramal, a social activist, was arrested on August 8 this year for highlighting public issues and fundamental rights of the people of GB on social media. He is currently in Gilgit jail on judicial remand.
An all-parties conference held in Gilgit last month also expressed concern at the suppression of the freedom of expression in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The conference was convened by the Awami Action Tehreek (People’s Action Movement) to take stock of the rising incidents of human rights violation, harassment of progressive and nationalist parties as well as social media activists by the security apparatus.
The conference participants demanded the release of journalists, social and political activists, removal of their names from Schedule 4 — a law aimed at restricting and monitoring the movement of activists of sectarian outfits — withdrawal of ATA and other draconian laws from GB which are being used arbitrarily against political and rights activists.
Ehsan Ali, President of the Supreme Appellate Bar Association, who has been defending political and social activists in courts for the last over two decades, says abuse of anti-terror laws against political and social activists, their harassment, arrests and torture are aimed at suppressing dissent views and creating an atmosphere of fear in the region.
He, however, blames certain so-called nationalist and sectarian proxies for providing an opportunity to the security apparatus to implicate genuine political activists in false cases.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its recent report on Gilgit-Baltistan has also voiced concern at the abuse of powers by the security agencies and demanded the government to bar them from exploiting anti-terrorism laws against youths and political activists in GB.
Asma Jahangir, an outspoken rights activist, who visited Gilgit-Baltistan last year, told BBC that youth of the region are picked or are put under watch list.
The HRCP’s former chairperson during the release of the findings of a report on March 15 in Islamabad, said “security agencies have been given powers under the National Action Plan to keep people in check. Anyone who criticises even a little is apprehended under the Anti-Terrorism Act.”
According to the report, hundreds of youths and political activists in GB have been put behind bars under the act. HRCP also called for keeping in check powers given to security agencies.
There is a growing sense of fear, sense of deprivation and resentment among the youth, due to the rights violations.