Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but there were constitutional restrictions. In addition, threats, harassment, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship.
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 have 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 have not executed any person for committing blasphemy to date, allegations of blasphemy have often prompted vigilantism and mob lynchings. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive issues such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces occurred during the year. Both the military, through the Director General–Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)–enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. Authorities used these laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, media owners had to obtain permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. In February the Ministry of Information introduced restrictions to control “hate speech” including in social media. Rights activists reported the government had contacted Twitter asking them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.
Media outlets claimed the government pressured stations into halting broadcasting of interviews with opposition political party leaders. On July 1, former president Asif Zardari of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party was seconds into an exclusive interview with a leading television news anchorperson, Hamid Mir of GEO-TV, when two stations simultaneously cut short their broadcasts. On July 11, an interview with opposition leader Maryam Nawaz of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) on Hum News was cut short. On July 26, television outlets halted live coverage of opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech at a party rally in Karachi attended by approximately 20,000 supporters.
PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations during the year and authorized its chairperson to shut down any channel found in violation of the PEMRA code of conduct, primarily with regard to prohibiting telecasts of protests that might instigate violence. Starting in 2018 the Interior Ministry shut down the Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe. The Ministry based its decision on an intelligence report claiming Radio Mashaal radio programs were “against the interests of Pakistan and in line with a hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.” The ban remained in effect at year’s end.
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 have a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities view 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 sources, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. The Committee to Protect Journalists did not confirm any targeted killings of journalists during the year. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings. On May 4, an assailant killed Awaz Ali Sher Rajpar, a journalist affiliated with Sindhi daily Awami, in an attack on the Pad Eidan Press Club in Naushehro Feroze, Sindh. Rajpar had unsuccessfully requested police protection after a suspect in a corruption case threatened him because of his reporting of local corruption. Police arrested Rajpar’s first cousin, and authorities attributed his death to a family dispute.
On February 9, authorities arrested Rizwan-ur-Rehman Razi, a television journalist for Din News, for “defamatory and obnoxious posts” on his Twitter account against the “judiciary, government institutions and intelligence agencies.” Observers of the arrest allege authorities beat Razi.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military; journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year. Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or being required 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 rather than deeper analysis, which journalists generally regarded as risky. 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, but there were no reports of the government banning books during the year. 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 on-screen. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by either suspending licenses or threatening to do so, or by without notice reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet 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 issues. 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 seen as supportive of the PML-N faced distribution disruptions.
The Jang/Geo media group also reportedly faced harassment and newspaper distribution blockages. Unidentified individuals reportedly pressured newspaper vendors not to distribute the Urdu language Jang newspaper and its sister English language paper The News, and discouraged advertisers from advertising with the Jang/Geo group’s outlets. Cable operators dropped the Geo news channel from their cable systems, or repeatedly changed its assigned channel.
Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system as well as government advertising, which makes up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. Media houses, acting as a government-influenced media syndicate, fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets journalists deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content.
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. 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 there is a history of militant and criminal elements killing, abducting, assaulting, and intimidating journalists and their families.
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.
Since 2012 the government has implemented a systematic, nationwide content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unacceptable” content, including material that it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society. In March the FIA registered a case against senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani in Karachi under the PECA, accusing him of “defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan” and cyberterrorism. Jillani alleged law enforcement agencies were directly involved in kidnapping citizens. In May a Karachi court dismissed charges against him, declaring the FIA failed to produce substantial proof against him.
The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The Ministry for Religious Affairs is responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the PTA for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency for possible criminal prosecution. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence. There were reports 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.
According to Coda Story, an online news platform, the country acquired the services of a Canada-based company to help build a nationwide “web monitoring system” that employs Deep Packet Inspection to monitor communications and record traffic and call data on behalf of the PTA.
The government generally did not interfere with academic freedom but restricted, screened, and censored certain cultural events with perceived antistate content. The government interfered with art exhibitions as well as musical and cultural activities. Holding such an event requires a government-issued permit, which the government frequently withheld.
On October 27, Karachi authorities shut down the art installation “Killing Fields of Karachi,” which featured 444 small concrete tombstones that each represented an alleged victim of former police officer Rao Anwar, who has been accused of being directly or indirectly involved in the killings of 444 persons in police encounters. The installation also included a documentary featuring the father of Naqeebullah Mehsud, who died in an allegedly fake police encounter that Anwar orchestrated.
The constitution and laws provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these freedoms were subject to restrictions.
Although the former FATA is under the same legal framework as the rest of the country, civil and military authorities continued to impose collective punishment through the West Pakistan Maintenance of Peace order, and Section 144 of the criminal code. These statutes effectively allow authorities to continue the longstanding 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.
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 ongoing severe conditions for the community.
During the year 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. Following the government’s pledge to take a harder line against PTM, the number of protests and rallies fell across the country. PTM activists continued to operate, although under much greater scrutiny after the arrest of most of the movement’s key leaders.
The constitution provides for freedom of association subject to certain restrictions imposed by law. The government maintained 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 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. Slow government approvals to NOC requests, financial sustainability, and operational uncertainty significantly constrained INGO activity.
The government adopted a new online registration regime and a more restrictive operating agreement for INGOs in 2015. The registration process entails extensive document requirements, multiple levels of review, and constant investigations and harassment by the security apparatus and other government offices. In April, 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. The hearings did not provide the reasons for the original rejections to the INGOs, nor an opportunity to discuss how to adjust their programs to secure a successful appeal. The ministry has not announced the final decisions on the appeals.
The years of uncertainty regarding registration status negatively impacted even those INGOs that had not received final rejection notices. Those INGOs without a clear registration status found it difficult to develop long-term plans and attract long-term funding and must rely on local partners or centrally managed funding from their overseas headquarters. They faced additional barriers to fundraising, opening bank accounts, and obtaining tax-exempt status from the Federal Board of Revenue. No-objection certificates were hard to obtain in certain provinces without an approved registration, thus hindering implementation and monitoring of activities, even for INGOs that had initiated the new registration process. In cases where INGOs secured registration, they still faced staffing limitations and government interference in their programmatic activities and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with local partners. INGOs also faced an uptick in visa denials for international staff and consultants. The lack of transparency and unpredictability of the registration process caused some INGOs to withdraw their registration applications and terminate operations in the country.
The government at both the federal and provincial levels similarly restricted the access of foreign-funded local NGOs through a separate registration regime, no-objection certificates, and other requirements. Authorities required NGOs to obtain no-objection certificates before accepting foreign funding, booking facilities or using university spaces for events, or working on sensitive human rights issues. Even when local NGOs receiving foreign funding were appropriately registered, the government often denied their requests for no-objection certificates. Domestic NGOs continued to face regular government monitoring and harassment, even if in possession of all required certifications.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement and for uninhibited foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: Government restrictions on access to certain areas of the former FATA and Balochistan, often due to security concerns, hindered freedom of movement. The government required an approved no-objection certificate for travel to areas of the country it designated “sensitive.”
Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel to Israel, and the country’s passports include a statement that they are “valid for all countries except Israel”. Passport applicants must list their religious affiliation, and those wishing to be listed as Muslims, must swear they believe Muhammad is the final prophet and denounce the founder of the Ahmadi movement as a false prophet. Ahmadi representatives reported authorities wrote the word “Ahmadi” in their passports if they refused to sign the declaration.
According to policy, government employees and students must obtain no-objection certificates from the government before traveling abroad. Authorities rarely enforced this requirement for students, however.
The government prohibited persons on an exit control list from departing the country. The stated purpose of the list prevented departure from the country of “persons involved in antistate activities, terrorism, or related to proscribed organizations and those placed on the orders of superior courts.” Those on the list had the right to appeal to the courts to have their names removed.
Exile: The government refused to accept the return of some Pakistanis deported to Pakistan from other countries. The government refused these deportees entry to the country as unidentifiable Pakistani citizens, despite having passports issued by Pakistani embassies abroad.
Large population displacements have occurred since 2008 because of militant activity and military operations in KP and the former FATA. Returns continued amid improved security conditions. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 29,000 of the total 5.3 million affected residents remained displaced as of May. The government and UN agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF, and the UN World Food Program collaborated to assist and protect those affected by conflict, who generally resided with host families, in rented accommodations, or to a lesser extent, in camps. Several internally displaced persons (IDP) populations settled in informal settlements outside of major cities, such as Lahore and Karachi.
The government required humanitarian organizations assisting civilians displaced by military operations to request no-objection certificates to access all districts in the former FATA. According to humanitarian organizations and NGOs, the certificate application process was cumbersome, and projects faced significant delays. The government maintained IDP camps inside and near former FATA districts where military operations took place, despite access and security concerns raised by humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization workers providing assistance in the camps faced danger when travelling to and within the former FATA. UN agencies maintained access to the camps and the affected areas mainly through local NGOs.
There were no reports of involuntary returns. Many IDPs reportedly wanted to return home, despite the lack of local infrastructure, housing, and available service delivery and the strict control that security forces maintained over returnees’ movements through extensive checkpoints. Other IDP families delayed their return or chose some family members to remain in the settled areas of KP where regular access to health care, education, and other social services were available. For IDPs who were unwilling or unable to return, the government coordinated support with the United Nations and other international organizations. The UN World Food Program distributed a monthly food ration to IDPs in KP displaced by conflict and continued to provide a six-month food ration to IDPs who returned to their areas of origin in the former FATA.
Despite large-scale recurring displacements of individuals due to natural disasters and disruptions caused by terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations, the government had not adopted specific legislation to tackle internal displacement problems. In addition, the National Disaster Management Act of 2010 does not provide any definition of IDPs or their rights.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government provided temporary legal status to approximately 1.4 million Afghans formally registered and holding proof of registration cards. In June the PTI-led government continued its trend of granting longer-term extensions, approving a one-year extension through June 30, 2020. The country also hosts 878,000 Afghans with Afghan Citizen Cards but does not grant them refugee status. The government typically extends the validity of the Afghan Citizen Cards in short increments. In October the government granted a two-month extension through the end of the year.
Although fewer in number than in previous years, there were reports provincial authorities, police, and host communities continued to harass Afghan refugees. UNHCR reported that from January to October there were 1,234 arrests and detentions of refugees. UNHCR reported arrests and detentions were down 63 percent through September.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. The country lacks a legal and regulatory framework for the management of refugees and migration. The law does not exclude asylum seekers and refugees from provisions regarding illegal entry and stay. In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR conducted refugee status determination under its mandate, and the country generally accepted UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status and allowed asylum seekers who were still undergoing the procedure, as well as recognized refugees, to remain in the country pending identification of a durable solution.
Employment: There is no formal document allowing refugees to work legally, but there is no law prohibiting refugees from working in the country. Many refugees worked as day laborers or in informal markets, and local employers often exploited refugees in the informal labor market with low or unpaid wages. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, accepting underpaid and undesirable work.
Access to Basic Services: One-third of registered Afghan refugees lived in one of 54 refugee villages, while the remaining two-thirds lived in host communities in rural and urban areas and sought to access basic services in those communities. Afghan refugees could avail themselves of the services of police and the courts, but some, particularly the poor, were afraid to do so. There were no reports of refugees denied access to health facilities because of their nationality. In February the government permitted Afghan refugees to open bank accounts using their proof of registration cards.
The constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between ages five and 16, regardless of their nationality. Any refugee registered with both UNHCR and the government-run Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees was, in theory, admitted to public education facilities after filing the proper paperwork. Access to schools, however, was on a space-available basis as determined by the principal, and most registered Afghan refugees attended private Afghan schools or schools sponsored by the international community. For older students, particularly girls in refugee villages, access to education remained difficult. Afghan refugees were able to use proof of registration cards to enroll in universities. Afghan students were eligible to seek admission to Pakistani public and private colleges and universities.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries and did not facilitate local integration. The government does not accord Pakistani citizenship to the children of Afghan refugees, but it did establish a parliamentary committee to evaluate the possibility of extending citizenship to Pakistani-born children of refugees and stateless persons.
Statelessness continued to be a problem. There is no national legislation on statelessness, and the government does not recognize the existence of stateless persons. International and national agencies estimated there were possibly thousands of stateless persons because of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, and the 1971 partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, UNHCR estimated there were sizable populations of Rohingya, Bihari, and Bengali living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless.