Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, but constitutional restrictions exist. In addition, threats, harassment, abductions, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship. Government failure to investigate and prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for the right to free speech and the press, subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” or the “integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” The law permits citizens to criticize the government publicly or privately, but court decisions interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism may result in legal, political, or commercial reprisal. Blasphemy laws restrict individual rights to free speech concerning matters of religion and religious doctrine. According to the penal code, the punishments for conviction of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, and although authorities did not execute any person for committing blasphemy, allegations of blasphemy often prompted vigilantism and mob lynching. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
On January 8, an antiterrorism court (ATC) sentenced three men to death for sharing blasphemous content through YouTube videos and fake social media profiles. According to media sources, this was the country’s first case in which the accused were convicted for sharing blasphemous content on social media.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive topics such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces persisted throughout the year. Both the military, through the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. Authorities used recently passed laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and the armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, media owners continued to require permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, and journalists had to depend largely on information provided by the government and military. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. Journalists also protested their inability to report freely on rights violations and forced disappearances in Balochistan, the Pashtun movement’s activities and protests, and the military’s involvement in political affairs and business enterprises. Rights activists reported the government contacted Twitter and asked them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.
Journalists alleged PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations, and media outlets claimed the government pressured stations to halt broadcasting of interviews with selected opposition political party leaders. The Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe, which the Interior Ministry closed in 2018, remained closed at the end of the year and Voice of America’s Pashto and Urdu websites remained blocked.
In January PEMRA suspended privately owned broadcaster BOL News following a program that criticized the appointment of judges to the country’s highest court. The criticism was considered insulting to the judiciary and thus in violation of the constitutional provision that protects the honor of the judiciary. The ban was later suspended by the Supreme Court. On June 28, the Sindh provincial assembly enacted the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Bill 2021. The law protects journalists against unlawful or arbitrary restrictions on their ability to work and requires the provincial government to take steps to protect media persons from harassment, violence, and threats of violence in both physical and online spaces. It also prevents government officials and institutions from forcing journalists to disclose the identity of their professional sources. The law establishes a Commission for the Protection of Journalists and other Media Practitioners.
In July journalist organizations strongly opposed a law passed by the Punjab Assembly that allowed the Assembly to penalize journalists for offenses including misrepresenting a speech made by members before the assembly or publishing a report or debate prohibited or expunged by the speaker of the assembly. The government reportedly later withdrew the clauses related to penalizing journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they had a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities viewed as sensitive were often the targets of retribution. Additionally, journalists working in remote and conflict-ridden areas lacked basic digital and traditional security skills, which increased pressure to self-censor or not cover a story.
According to observers, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings.
On March 19, a group of armed men shot and killed Ajay Laalwani, a reporter for Royal News TV in Sukkur, Sindh. On April 24, unknown attackers shot and killed a 23-year-old journalist, Abdul Wahid Raisani, in Quetta, Balochistan. Raisani worked for Balochistan’s largest Urdu daily newspaper, Azadi. Journalists also said they were subject to violent reprisals for reporting on cases of gender-based violence. On May 25, unidentified men attacked journalist Asad Ali Toor at his residence in Islamabad. According to the journalist, the attackers warned him against reporting on the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Toor is a well-known critic of the country’s military and its role in the country’s politics.
On June 7, veteran journalist and member of the Punjab Assembly, Syeda Maimanat Mohsin, was attacked while returning home after addressing a public rally in Okara’s Hujra Shah Muqeem area. Journalists were also subject to enforced disappearances and arrests.
In July prominent journalist and television host Nadeem Malik was summoned by the counterterrorism wing of the FIA concerning his comments involving a high-profile case regarding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
On August 7, the FIA cybercrime wing took into custody two journalists, Amir Mir and Imran Shafqat, allegedly for their public criticism of the military. They were later released on personal bond.
On August 13, armed men attacked and seriously injured a journalist, Ghulam Qadir Shar, in Sanghar, Sindh, allegedly as reprisal for reporting on a community-sanctioned attack on a woman.
Freedom Network, a media freedom advocacy group, reported an overall 40 percent increase in attacks on journalists during the year, with 39 cases from January to April alone in Punjab.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military, religious extremism, and abuse of blasphemy laws. Journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year, and PEMRA issued editorial directives to media outlets. Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or requirements to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles with a military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts, which journalists generally regarded as less risky than analysis.
Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they allowed reprinting. Imported movies, books, magazines, and newspapers were subject to censorship for objectionable sexual or religious content. Obscene literature, a category the government defined broadly, was subject to seizure. The government fined private television channels for alleged violations of the code of ethics and for showing banned content. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by suspending licenses or threatening to do so or by reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet without notice so that its programming would be hard or impossible to find on most televisions. Many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security topics. The Central Board of Film Censors previewed and censored sexual content and any content that glorified Indian heroes, leaders, or military figures in foreign and domestic films.
The government continued to use network access as a tool to exert control over media outlets. Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system, as well as government advertising, which made up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. The economic contraction caused by COVID-19 decreased private revenue further, rendering outlets more dependent on government advertising. A new policy that would allow media outlets to tap into subscription revenues was stalled in a Supreme Court battle. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content. Media houses also reportedly fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat to their revenues or continued ability to operate. In April the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors rejected a PEMRA notification that asked television channels to rely only on press releases and official notifications to report on cabinet meetings. In May, Geo News suspended Hamid Mir, longtime television host and one of the country’s most prominent journalists, following Mir’s public outcry against the country’s military and the intelligence agencies.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. Blasphemy is punishable ranging from a two-year imprisonment to death. On January 8, an antiterrorism court gave death sentences to three persons for social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad under the blasphemy laws.
On March 12, the Lahore High Court agreed to hear a petition seeking the death sentence for a Christian previously jailed for life after being convicted of sending text messages defaming the Prophet Muhammad.
In Peshawar the Awami National Party chairman filed a civil case accusing a political rival and three newspapers of defamation in 2019. The case remained pending during the year.
National Security: Some journalists asserted authorities cited laws protecting national security to censor and restrict media distribution of material that criticized government policies or military or public officials, or that described the country’s security situation in a negative light. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area where a military operation was in progress.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased, but an environment where militant and criminal elements were known to kill, abduct, assault, and intimidate journalists and their families led journalists, particularly in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, to self-censor.
Following the takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban in September, banned terrorist organization TTP issued a warning to journalists and media organizations in Pakistan asking them to refrain from referring to TTP as a “terrorist or extremist” organization. Journalists, particularly those working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, continued to receive threats and expressed concern regarding the government’s inability to arrest those involved in the killing of journalists in these two provinces.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels.
The government uses a systematic, nationwide, content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unlawful” content, including material it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society.
The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The PTA’s Web Analysis Division is ultimately responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content for removal, while the FIA is responsible for possible criminal prosecution. The PTA closely coordinated with other ministries in its enforcement efforts. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence and that the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and observers believed the government often used vague criteria without due process.
Authorities, particularly in the military, increasingly sought to restrict online space to silence dissidents and curtail content deemed critical of the military. In January, the PTA required social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to remove trailers for an allegedly sacrilegious movie titled “Lady of Heaven.” On April 16, the federal government through the PTA temporarily blocked access to social media sites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. The PTA stated the services were blocked as part of a crackdown on the religious extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.
By law if an account is under suspicion, the social media company is bound to provide account data to authorities.
The PTA also continued to try to control social media and video-streaming services such as YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. In April the PTA asked Twitter to immediately block or remove content that criticized the country’s judiciary and informed the company that such content was not part of “freedom of expression” and could be a punishable crime under “contempt of court.”
The PTA asked YouTube “to immediately block vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude, and hate speech content for viewing in Pakistan.” Although the PTA claimed its intentions were to stop the spread of pornography and vulgar content, users alleged it was actively targeting critics of government policies, especially those critical of the army. Internet service providers also claimed the PTA wanted to regulate political voices that spread what it deems indecent content. Online users continued to report they feared increasing censorship trends.
On June 28, the Sindh High Court ordered the suspension of access to TikTok in the country until July 8, but subsequently lifted the ban on July 2. The order was issued on a petition filed by a citizen aggrieved by the “immorality and obscenity” spread by content on the mobile app. The federal government did not lift the overall ban on TikTok until November 19, after the government and TikTok had reached agreement on the removal of the objectionable content from the platform.
Access to five popular live-streaming dating applications, including Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr, and SayHi, remained blocked during the year on the pretext they featured immoral and indecent content. The law prohibits homosexuality and extramarital relationships. The PTA noted the five companies failed to respond to its directive within the stipulated time frame, the duration of which was unclear. Despite the PTA’s continuing engagement with some of these dating websites, the bans remained in place under the pretense that the applications were only used to facilitate what authorities viewed as immoral activities.
Long-term communications shutdowns were imposed in rural areas of the former FATA as well as Balochistan, where several districts reportedly have had no mobile internet service since 2017. Others insisted connectivity was hampered by lack of infrastructure, poor internet, and slow service, often provided by the military-operated Special Communication Organization in certain regions.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government interfered with academic freedom by restricting, screening, and censoring certain cultural events based on limiting dissemination of antistate content and obscenity. The government sometimes required government-issued permits, which were frequently withheld.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the government continued to use the West Pakistan Maintenance of Peace Order and the British-era Section 144 of the criminal code. These statutes effectively allow authorities to continue the long-standing practice of suspending the right to assemble or speak in the newly merged areas. By law district authorities may prevent gatherings of more than four persons without police authorization. The law permits the government to ban all rallies and processions, except funeral processions, for security reasons.
The constitution states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.” Authorities generally prohibited Ahmadi Muslims from holding conferences or gatherings. Ahmadis cited the refusal of local authorities to reopen Ahmadi mosques damaged by anti-Ahmadi rioters in past years as evidence of the continuing severe conditions for the community.
During the year the PTM mobilized its predominantly ethnic-Pashtun supporters to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations to demand justice and to protest abuses by government security forces. The PTM continued to operate and hold massive rallies, although under much greater scrutiny after the January 2020 arrest of PTM’s national leader in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Security agencies continued to arrest, detain, and file charges against PTM leaders during the year in connection with protests and speeches.
On March 10, a doctored video of organizers of a women’s march in Karachi chanting allegedly blasphemous slogans went viral on social media. Organizers quickly released the original video clarifying the actual slogans in subtitles. The religious extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan called the march a foreign-funded conspiracy against religious values and condemned the alleged blasphemy. The TTP issued threats against march organizers, and a Karachi-based cleric associated with Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Manzoor Mengal, publicly called for marchers to be gang raped. The NGO HRCP said the doctored videos and blasphemy allegations were incitement to violence against women and demanded action against those responsible.
Many politicians, including from mainstream parties, condemned women’s marches for being counter to Islam and traditions.
On March 17, Sindh police filed charges against 60 political workers, journalists, and activists in Sukkur city for protesting the extrajudicial killing of Sindh University student Irfan Jatoi. Human rights organizations condemned the charges under the antiterror law and accused police of conflating the right to peaceful assembly with treason. Following the June 6 protest in Karachi against the Bahria Town housing development project, police arrested more than 120 individuals, including political activists and workers, for incitement. Some of the arrested political leaders were reportedly kept at undisclosed locations for days until police brought them before a court. On August 1, under pressure from city officials, organizers cancelled a women’s march in Faisalabad, Punjab. The march had been called to protest recent brutal murders of women.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association subject to certain restrictions imposed by law. The government maintains a series of policies that steadily eroded the freedom of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and domestic NGOs to carry out their work and access the communities they serve. INGOs, UN organizations, and international missions generally must request government permission in the form of no-objection certificates (NOCs) before they may conduct most in-country travel, carry out certain project activities, or initiate projects. For some UN organizations implementing projects through the government, project NOCs are not required, although if they partner with local organizations, these entities must obtain project NOCs. Some UN organizations worked around NOCs by signing memoranda of understanding with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government departments for certain projects.
Slow government approvals of NOC requests, insecure finance, and operational uncertainty significantly constrained INGO activity. The onerous NOC requirements, frequent and arbitrary requests for information from the security apparatus, as well as periodic harassment, impeded project operations, particularly in areas that could greatly benefit from support, such as the newly merged districts.
INGOs faced additional barriers to fundraising, opening bank accounts, and obtaining tax-exempt status from the Federal Board of Revenue, as well as visa denials for international staff and consultants. The online registration protocol made the process for obtaining registration laborious, nontransparent, and ultimately elusive for many INGOs. Registration requires extensive documentation, including financial statements, a detailed annual budget, and a letter outlining donor support, among many other requirements. Organizations were subject to constant investigation and harassment by the security apparatus and other government offices during and after the registration process. Organizations targeted often included those that focused on topics the government deemed sensitive, such as democracy promotion, press freedom, religious freedom, and human rights.
Eighty-five INGOs signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Interior to obtain foreign funding and implement programs. In 2019 a total of 20 INGOs whose applications for registration were denied by the Ministry of Interior in 2018 appeared before an interagency committee to appeal those initial rejections. At the hearings the reasons for the original rejections were not disclosed, nor did the INGOs receive a clear explanation of actions they could take to restore their legal standing. In 2020 the ministry invited several NGOs that had previously been denied registration to reapply, but local sources reported that many of these decisions were still pending. While foreign assistance to the country has declined in recent years, the lack of transparency and unpredictability of the registration process and operational constraints also contributed to some INGOs withdrawing their registration applications and terminating operations. Local observers reported that approximately two-thirds of INGOs have departed the country since the new registration process was introduced in 2015. In September the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Affairs Division (EAD), which oversees registration for domestic NGOs, circulated a proposal to revise NGO registration policy with stakeholders.
In March 2020 the EAD eased requirements for registered domestic and international NGOs engaged in COVID-19 relief activities. The EAD also issued new Standard Operating Procedures to facilitate INGO projects related to the pandemic. Under these procedures, the government would immediately issue NOCs to INGO projects related to the pandemic, subject to their compliance with new guidelines. Only INGOs with signed MOUs would be allowed to work, and these NGOs would be required to submit four sets of their plan of action with explicit mention of funding sources and areas of operations in the country.
At both the federal and provincial levels, the government impeded foreign-funded local NGOs through a separate registration regime, NOCs, and other requirements. Authorities require domestic NGOs to obtain NOCs before accepting foreign funding, booking facilities, using university spaces for events, or working on “sensitive” human rights matters. Even when local NGOs receiving foreign funding were appropriately registered, the government often denied their requests for NOCs, and they faced regular government monitoring and harassment.
Under directives from federal institutions on security and financial oversight, the Sindh government introduced measures governing registration renewals of NGOs. In August 2020 a group of NGOs challenged the Sindh Charities Registration and Regulation Act of 2019 through a petition at the Sindh High Court. The petition argued the government was curbing freedom of association beyond what was permissible under the constitution. It further argued the purpose of the law was not to regulate NGOs but to incapacitate and debilitate them. As of October the case was ongoing. NGO representatives reported increased government restrictions and harassment by security agencies resulted in major NGOs reducing staff and activities.