Pakistan authorities must immediately and unconditionally release journalist Imran Riaz Khan and cease targeting journalists in retaliation for their commentary on the military, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
In the early hours of Thursday, February 2, officers with Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency arrested Khan, an anchor with the privately owned broadcaster BOL News and host of a YouTube channel with about 3.8 million subscribers, according to news reports.
FIA officers arrested Khan at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport, where he was leaving for the United Arab Emirates, in response to an investigation into alleged hate speech, according to those sources.
The first information report in Khan’s case, a document opening an investigation, was shared on Twitter and shows that the FIA’s cybercrime wing is investigating Khan under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and the penal code. CPJ has repeatedly documented how the PECA has been used to detain, investigate, and harass journalists in retaliation for their work.
“Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency must immediately release journalist Imran Riaz Khan and drop any investigation in retaliation for his work,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities must allow journalists to freely comment on state institutions, including the military. Arresting journalists for their commentary or reporting smacks of a desperate attempt to silence criticism.”
The first information report alleges that Khan engaged in “hate speech” aimed at creating a “rift between the general public and the state institutions” during his speech at a January 30 seminar on violence against journalists in Pakistan, clips of which were shared on social media. In that speech, Khan questioned Qamar Javed Bajwa, a former army general, who said in his final speech before his retirement in November 2022 that the army would remain apolitical in Pakistan.
Authorities accuse Khan of violating sections of the PECA pertaining to electronic forgery, malicious code, and committing an offense in relation to an information system, according to the first information report, which says he is also accused under the penal code of abetment of mutiny, defamation, and public mischief. Abetment of mutiny can carry a punishment of life imprisonment, according to the law.
On January 13, FIA officers arrested journalist Shahid Aslam, alleging he was involved in coverage of the assets of Bajwa and his family. He was released on bail on January 18, news reports said.
CPJ was unable to locate contact details for Bajwa. CPJ emailed the FIA for comment but did not receive any response.
In May 2022, the Islamabad High Court ordered the director of the FIA cybercrime wing to coordinate with the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and other representative bodies prior to initiating punitive action against journalists, according to news reports. The union plans to file a petition in court challenging Khan’s arrest on Friday, BOL News reported.
Police previously detained Khan from July 5 to 9, 2022, after a slew of cases were registered against him, according to CPJ reporting and news reports. On July 14, 2022, authorities ordered Khan off a Dubai-bound flight from the Lahore airport, according to a tweet by the journalist and his lawyer, Mian Ali Ashfaq, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app at the time.
CPJ called Ashfaq and contacted him via messaging app for comment on Khan’s latest arrest but did not immediately receive any replies.