Police in Pakistan have arrested a senior executive of a popular mainstream television news channel following the suspension of the station’s broadcast for airing “seditious” content, moves critics denounced as an attempt to stifle media freedom.
ARY News, critical of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government, said Wednesday that a police raid picked up its head news official, Ammad Yousaf, without a warrant, from his house in Karachi, the port city where the channel is headquartered.
Muqaddas Haider, a senior provincial police officer, confirmed the arrest and said Yousaf would appear in a court within 24 hours.
The crackdown on one of Pakistan’s biggest and most-watched private TV channels drew condemnation from local and foreign media rights defenders.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called on Pakistani authorities Wednesday to “immediately cease all legal action against the ARY News employees and withdraw the transmission suspension orders.”
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) on Monday ordered capable operators to urgently suspend the transmission of ARY News “till further notice.” The state regulator later sent a “show cause notice” to the station, accusing it of airing “false, hateful and seditious content.”
The PEMRA claimed that the material aired on “your channel raises serious concerns about your mala fide intent” and represented “a clear and present threat to national security.”
The notice referred to an appearance on ARY News by Shahbaz Gill, a close aide to former prime minister Imran Khan, alleging he made comments “tantamount to inciting the rank and file of armed forces towards revolt.”
“PEMRA’s suspension of ARY News’ transmission, the arrest of Ammad Yousaf and the registering of FIRs [police cases] against several ARY News employees are blatant acts of legal harassment and censorship against Pakistan’s media,” the IFJ said.
The group noted that the suspension impacted viewers across Pakistan and India.
“The IFJ urges the Pakistani government to safeguard the rights of all journalists and media workers and ensure freedom of expression and freedom of the press are maintained in accordance with the Constitution of Pakistan.”
Salman Iqbal, founder and CEO of the channel, and several anchorpersons have also been booked under treason charges.
The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded authorities free Yousaf and drop legal proceedings against other ARY journalists and executives.
“Pakistan needs to get out of the habit of filing legal cases, throwing journalists into jail & blocking programming distribution in response to on-air comments it doesn’t like,” tweeted Steven Butler, senior CPJ program consultant.
Mazhar Abbas, a prominent journalist and political analyst, condemned what he called the disappearance of Yousaf and the ban on ARY News, cautioning authorities against calling media outlets and workers traitors. “All these actions are unlawful. Sadly, only the rulers changed in this country not the rule,” Abbas said on Twitter.
Gill was later also arrested on charges of “sedition” and “abetting mutiny.” The politician during a court appearance Wednesday briefly spoke to reporters and rejected the allegations.
Pakistan is ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries for media workers and criticism of the powerful military has long been seen as a red line.
Sedition allegations, critics say, are often used to intimidate and harass politicians, media outlets and journalists critical of the military.
In recent weeks, cases of intimidation were registered against several journalists for questioning in their prime time shows the military’s alleged role in national politics. The military denies the allegations it interferes in the country’s politics.
France-based Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, cautioned the Pakistan army high command last month against harassment of the media, saying such tactics would “seriously undermine” democracy in Pakistan.
“The many cases of harassment that RSF has registered in the past two months have one thing in common — all the journalists concerned had, in one way or another, criticized the army’s role in Pakistani politics,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.