When journalists questioned Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan about restrictions on the media last month, he gave them a challenge: they should show him any other country where the media enjoyed greater freedom than in Pakistan.
The prime minister’s assertion is at odds with nearly every assessment of media freedom in the country, which includes the recent report prepared by the European Commission on Pakistan’s compliance with the European Union’s Generalised System of Preferences-Plus, also known as GSP-Plus, conditions. The GSP-Plus trading status is an instrument of the EU’s trade policy that aims to encourage developing countries to comply with core international standards in return for trade incentives.
Conditions to get and retain the special status include ratification and implementation of seven core international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or ICCPR; the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
While the European Parliament extended Pakistan’s GSP-Plus status for two years after reviewing the report, the European Commission’s assessment raises some serious concerns about the human rights situation in the country – particularly related to the freedom of expression and the media – which, if unaddressed, could be a major hindrance in Pakistan retaining the GSP-Plus trade benefits in the coming years.
The report noted that there had been a “serious deterioration of media freedom in Pakistan, a trend that began in the lead-up to the general election in 2018”, with national security widely used as a “pretext for cracking down on freedom of expression”.
It highlighted the “increasing pressure by security forces, with the tacit approval of the government, on those with dissenting views, including media representatives and human rights defenders”. It detailed the intimidation tactics used against the media, and expressed concern that they often lead to self-censorship by journalists and publishers, which hampers their capacity to continue to function.
The report also pointed out how cable operators were prohibited from broadcasting certain networks, and how the distribution of certain newspapers was severely curtailed in the country.
Some of these concerns had also been raised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations on Pakistan’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2017. The committee recommended Pakistan ensure that “criminal laws are not improperly used against journalists and dissenting voices” and review legal provisions relating to freedom of expression, including the laws related to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.
Significantly, the European Commission’s report stated that for Pakistan to comply with the conditions of GSP-Plus, it “must demonstrate that it will concretely increase its efforts and take more proactive and sustained actions to… address problematic areas” identified in the review.
It is unfortunate, however, that instead of resolving to address the concerns raised by the European Commission, the government has further increased its clampdown on the media and dissenting voices since the renewal of the GSP-Plus.
No space for dissent
Take, for example, the arrest of Mir Shakilur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of the Jang group, who was arrested on March 12 by the National Accountability Bureau on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. According to Jang Group, over the past 18 months, the NAB sent more than a dozen threatening letters to its staff for critical reporting of the authority.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also publicly chastised the Jang group, and in particular its news channel, Geo News, on a number of occasions for its programming critical of the government. Mir Shakilur Rehman is now in NAB’s physical custody in seemingly arbitrary detention until April 18.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have all called the arrest yet another example of harassment of journalists and an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and dissent.
In its review, the European Commission too noted the partisan conduct of NAB, and called on the government to give the Bureau more autonomy to perform its functions independently.
Notably, the NAB Ordinance allows for up to 90 days physical remand, which is at odds with a number of human rights guarantees, including the right to liberty.
Defining the right to liberty in the ICCPR, the UN Human Rights Committee has said, “detention pending trial must be based on an individualised determination that it is reasonable and necessary taking into account all the circumstances…”
Furthermore, the committee has said that courts must examine whether alternatives to pretrial detention, such as bail, electronic bracelets, or other conditions would render detention unnecessary in the particular case. Like in Mir Shakilur Rehman’s case, accountability courts grant and extend physical remand in a perfunctory manner, without reasoned decisions explaining why detention is necessary.
The European Commission will take these developments into account as it prepares its next review and recommends whether or not to renew Pakistan’s trade incentives under the GSP-Plus.
Pakistani authorities should take note that Sri Lanka’s GSP status was suspended for a number of years after 2010, when the European Commission found “significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme”.
It is therefore crucial for Pakistan to take seriously the findings of the European Commission’s report, as well as observations of the UN Human Rights Committee, and be in a position to demonstrate concrete and significant progress in practice.
Failure to do so would hurt the Pakistani people twice over. Not only will they continue to be deprived of protection of human rights guaranteed by Pakistan’s constitution, as well as international treaty obligations, they also risk losing the potential economic benefits that result from the EU’s trade incentives under the GSP-Plus.
This article first appeared on Dawn.