On the 12th of March, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, a media mogul, businessman, and journalist from Pakistan was detained and arrested ostensibly on the basis of having broken property law back in 1986.
Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog, alleges that Mr. Rehmen illegally leased government land 34 years ago and then managed to have the ownership rights transferred to him permanently in 2016 when ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in power.
These charges being levied against a less prominent member of Pakistan’s society would be cause for less concern, but in view of two notable trends, the apprehension of Mir Shakhil-ur-Rehman takes on a more sinister light.
The first is that since 2018, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the public face and owner of the country’s largest media group, has found himself in the bad books of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In that year, Mr. Khan defeated incumbent Nawaz Sharif in a general election, but accused Mr. Rehman’s Jang Media Group of having backed Sharif. In the years since, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s Geo TV channel has also drawn Khan’s ire for refusing censorship, giving a platform to members of the opposition, and criticizing the government’s policies, especially the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
So while certainly the most audacious, the arrest of Mr. Shakil-ur-Rehman is not the first time PM Imran Khan has attempted to frighten or otherwise silence the voice of the Jang Group. The Government has pulled advertisements in order to cut off a valuable source of revenue and sent Geo TV reporters, producers, and editors threats of shutdown in response to efforts of investigative journalism. It has both shut off Jang Group Media channels completely, or forced cable operators to alter and demote their channel listings so as to make ‘tuning in’ a more difficult task.
And while this first trend is troubling, it is in light of the second trend — the extension of such hostile treatment to other occupants of the media space — that it becomes more necessary to call into into question the political integrity of Prime Minister Imran.
Crucially, the Government demonstrates antagonism and aggression towards forms of media that host figures or politicians from the political and ideological opposition. In 2019, three other Pakistan TV news channels, AbbTakk TV, 24 News, and Capital TV, were taken off the air for days following live interviews with Maryam Sharif, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After a May 2018 interview (also) with Nawaz Sharif in the run up to elections, the distribution of the leading daily newspaper, Dawn, was stifled both legally, through an injunction from the Press Council of Pakistan, and on the ground, physically, as vans and hawkers distributing its copies were denied entry to a number of cities and towns by Government and military officials. The same technique of cutting advertising in order to stop up a financial life-flow was also extended to Dawn, especially in July of 2019, after the paper published remarks made by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which he admitted the usage of Pakistan’s soil by terrorists to launch attacks into Iran, a claim that Pakistan’s military had vehemently denied.
It bears mentioning that the concern expressed on this forum at the plight of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman is by no means unique or singular. In fact it is at the root of the statements of more than seventy-four media and human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the World Editors Forum, who have all written to PM Imran Khan to ask for the journalist’s release.
When members of the media are unfairly forced to bear the burden of partisanship and are made suffer for doing no more than their job, it is worth speaking out against. The voices of journalists oftentimes convey no more than the feelings, anxieties, and emotions of their readers, of a given country’s citizens. It may be easy for the Government of Imran Khan to try to silence those who most vocally give voice to his nation’s simmering discontent, but it is not right. For that reason we earnestly call on Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, so that his life may not suffer for the sake of the nation’s politics.