Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a Pakistani businessman’s “unacceptable” threats against a newspaper editor in response to a story implicating him in a prominent corruption scandal, and calls on Pakistan’s government to guarantee the journalist’s safety.
The threats were made in a phone call that Hamza Azhar Salam – the editor of The Pakistan Daily newspaper – received on 9 December, the day after he ran a story implying that, in 2019, property tycoon Malik Riaz helped then Prime Minister Imran Khan cheat the state of millions of dollars. If the story and a tweet about the story were not deleted, “routes, alternate to legal routes” would be used,” Salam was told by a man working for Riaz.
“This type of threat is absolutely unacceptable,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Regardless of their power and the brutality of the methods they otherwise employ, the business community cannot use threats to block the revelation of matters that are of major interest to the citizens of Pakistan. We call on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government to do whatever is necessary to ensure that Hamza Azhar Salam is protected and to guarantee respect for the rule of law.”
The story published by Salam under his own by-line provided evidence that Farah Gogi, a close friend of then Prime Minister Imran Khan’s wife, flew to Dubai on 29 April 2019 aboard a plane owned by Bahria Town, Riaz’s construction company.
The timing of the trip is important because it coincided with the sale in Dubai of a diamond jewellery set that Khan had received from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Khan is said to have sold the jewellery for two million dollars in violation of regulations stipulating that gifts received by government representatives from foreign leaders belong to the state.
The alleged violation has been used by the Election Commission of Pakistan as grounds for banning Khan from running for public office for five years.
“The implication of my story” was that Bahria Town CEO Malik Riaz “actively facilitated an act of corruption by Farah Gogi that ultimately benefited then Prime Minister Imran Khan and his family,” Salam told RSF.
As well as being threatened, Salam is also being summoned by Riaz to pay 10 billion rupees (more than 40 million euros) in damages. He has tried to resist by legal means but says the property tycoon’s influence extends to many areas of Pakistani society including the judicial system.
“Malik Riaz’s family has a history of using armed goons to intimidate people,” he said. “I have been advised to change residence frequently and to limit my contact with the outside world. I’m still trying to lead a normal life, but I live in fear because of the threats from Bahria Town.”
Salam’s fears should be taken seriously as almost all of the murders of journalists in Pakistan in the past 20 years have gone unpunished. Pakistan is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.