KARACHI: As journalist rights groups across the world on Wednesday condemned “harassment and intimidation” of Dawn media group and its staff, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) demanded that Prime Minister Imran Khan issue an unequivocal condemnation of the siege of Dawn offices by an angry crowd on completely spurious grounds.
Apart from the RSF, the International Press Institute (IPI) — a global network of journalists, editors and media executives — and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also expressed concern over the state of press freedom in the country after threats were hurled at Dawn staffers, editor and publisher.
The apparent motive for the protest was the publication of a story by Dawn about the recent London Bridge terrorist attack in which the attacker was identified as “a British citizen born in the UK and of Pakistani origin”.
PM asked to condemn intimidation of journalists
According to the RSF, the entrance to the building that houses the newspaper and its sister TV channel, DawnNews TV, was occupied by the demonstrators who prevented anyone from entering or exiting the premises, threatened any employees who tried to enter, and demanded written apologies for the newspaper’s purported offence. The simple, widely verified piece of information was regretted by the protesters as an insult to Pakistan and a ground for demanding that the newspaper be banned outright. After more than three hours, and long negotiations, the newspaper’s administration managed to get the crowd to disperse, but not without being threatened and warned.
The police did not intervene, it stated.
“This show of force, which was clearly orchestrated, constitutes yet another absolutely unacceptable act of intimidation towards Pakistan’s leading daily,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The information we have obtained indicates that the federal government was, at the very least, a passive accomplice if not the actual instigator of behaviour that is unacceptable in a democracy. We call on Prime Minister Imran Khan to publicly condemn these excesses, failing which he will be held personally responsible for this alarming press freedom violation.”
Incitement to violence
Far from being spontaneous, the RSF said, the siege was the result of a series of ambiguous tweets by leading figures of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the government. Science and Technology Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain and Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, for example, turned to social media to target Dawn.
Mr Fawad tweeted that he was “shocked on your cheap attempt to link a British terrorist to Pakistan” while Ms Mazari tweeted, “Dawn has its own agenda”. The ambiguity of this phrase alone sufficed to elicit calls from thousands of trolls for Dawn to be attacked and ransacked, according to the RSF statement.
A day later demonstrators also gathered at the Karachi Press Club holding signs calling for Dawn Editor Zaffar Abbas and publisher Hameed Haroon to be hanged, according to videos shot at the scene and received by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some of the placards mentioned Tehreek Tahaffuz-i-Pakistan Movement as the protest organiser.
The CPJ asked the Pakistani authorities to prevent the demonstrations from turning violent and investigate death threats made against its staffers.
“Pakistanis have every right to object to and demonstrate against the Dawn newspaper over its coverage, but threatening violence steps way over the line,” said Kathleen Carroll, CPJ’s board chair. “We call on Pakistani authorities to take all appropriate measures to ensure the safety of Dawn’s staff.”
Just last month, the CPJ board had presented Dawn Editor Zaffar Abbas with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom”.
The International Press Institute, too, was appalled at the serious threats against Dawn, specifically targeting its CEO and its editor. “It is even more disturbing as they appear to have been driven by government ministers’ and ruling party leaders’ vocal criticism of the newspaper coverage,” the IPI stated.
IPI executive director Barbara Trionfi said: “This is yet another effort to silence a leading independent voice in the country and we urge the government to publicly condemn this type of threats and refrain from the type of hostility against independent media that has characterised the incumbent administration.”
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said: “The intimidation and harassment that Dawn continues to face is unacceptable.”
The rights group appealed to people to attend the PFUJ protests being staged in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta on Thursday (today) at 3pm to show solidarity with Dawn and its workers.