Pakistan authorities and the leadership and supporters of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party must respect the rights of journalists covering the country’s political unrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Amid protests following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday, May 9, authorities and supporters of Khan’s PTI party have repeatedly attacked and harassed members of the press, according to a statement by the local press freedom group Pakistan Press Foundation and local journalists who spoke to CPJ. On Thursday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court declared Khan’s arrest illegal and ordered his immediate release.

As of the evening of Friday, May 12, at least one journalist, Imran Riaz Khan, was being held in an unidentified location, his lawyer Mian Ali Ashfaq told CPJ by phone.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has also suspended mobile internet services and restricted access to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in various areas throughout the country since Tuesday.

“Pakistan authorities must unconditionally release journalist Imran Riaz Khan, investigate all attacks on the media, and restore unrestricted access to internet services and social media platforms throughout the country,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director. “The Pakistani people have a right to be informed about the ongoing upheaval in their country. The authorities and the opposition political party must respect that right.”

Authorities arrested Imran Riaz Khan, an anchor with the privately owned broadcaster BOL News, in the early hours of Thursday, May 11, at Punjab’s Sialkot Airport, where he was scheduled to travel to Oman, according to news reports and Ashfaq.

In a detention order reviewed by CPJ, the Sialkot police accused the journalist of repeatedly delivering “provocative speech” and requested that he be detained for 30 days due to the “likelihood that he will create unrest [among] the general public and create [a] law & order situation.”

Prior to his arrest, the journalist had published videos on his personal YouTube channel, where he has about 4 million subscribers, demonstrating support for PTI protesters and sharing reports alleging that the former prime minister had been tortured in custody.

Attacks by pro-PTI protesters

In the Hashtnagri area of Peshawar on Tuesday, protesters used rods to break the windows of a satellite van with the privately owned broadcaster Dawn News TV, leaving correspondent Arif Hayat with an injury to his left shoulder and minor cuts, according to Ali Akber, the broadcaster’s Peshawar bureau chief, and video of the incident reviewed by CPJ.

The demonstrators damaged the crew’s cameras and gathered around the van, blocking it from leaving the area, Akber said, adding that the crew managed to leave after the way was cleared about two hours later. 

Separately, on Wednesday, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the building housing the public broadcaster Radio Pakistan and the state-owned news agency Associated Press of Pakistan in Peshawar, according to a report by Radio Pakistan as well as Peshawar Press Club President Arshad Aziz Malik and Asmat Shah, an Associated Press of Pakistan reporter, who both spoke with CPJ by phone.

The protesters broke through the building gate and ransacked the outlets’ offices, damaging equipment and breaking windows, and set the building and several of the companies’ vehicles on fire, according to those sources. A Radio Pakistan administrative employee sustained severe burn injuries, Shah said.

CPJ called and messaged Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, the PTI information secretary for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which includes Peshawar, for comment, but did not receive any replies.

Attacks by police

At about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, police officers attacked Feezan Ashraf, a producer for the privately owned broadcaster Suno TV, and Syed Mustajab Hassan, a producer for the privately owned broadcaster Express News, while they were attempting to cover a raid on the home of a PTI leader in Rawalpindi, according to a statement by the National Press Club in Islamabad, which CPJ reviewed, and the two journalists, who spoke with CPJ by phone.

Six police officers confronted Ashraf and Hassan, who introduced themselves as journalists and showed the officers their press identification cards. However, the officers proceeded to kick, slap, and beat the journalists with wooden rods for about 15 minutes, they said, adding that officers also broke their mobile phones and forced Hassan to delete a video he captured of the raid.

Ashraf and Hassan sustained significant lesions throughout their bodies and painful injuries, including to their heads, according to the journalists and photos of their injuries reviewed by CPJ. They received treatment at a local hospital and were prescribed painkillers.

Separately, at around 3 a.m. on Thursday, five police officers detained Aftab Iqbal, an anchor with the privately owned broadcaster Samaa TV, at his farmhouse in Lahore, according to a video by the journalist’s wife, Nasreen Iqbal, and Ashfaq, who is also representing Iqbal.

While entering the home’s premises, officers pushed a security guard to the ground, slapped Iqbal’s assistant, and threatened others at the scene to lie down or be shot, Nasreen Iqbal said in that video, adding that her husband did not resist his arrest.

Iqbal had also published videos on YouTube, where he has 1.6 million followers, that showed his support for PTI protesters and Imran Khan. Iqbal was released on Friday following an order by the Lahore High Court, Ashfaq said.

CPJ called and messaged Lahore Capital City Police Officer Bilal Kamyana and emailed the Punjab police for comment but did not immediately receive any replies.