Pakistan authorities must cease harassing foreign-based journalists Wajahat Saeed Khan, Shaheen Sehbai, Sabir Shakir, and Moeed Pirzada and allow them to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On Saturday, June 10, police in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad opened a criminal and terrorism investigation into freelance U.S.-based journalists Khan and Sehbai, along with two former army officers, for allegedly “inciting people to attack military installations, spread terrorism, and create chaos” on May 9 after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, according to news reports and the two journalists, who spoke with CPJ by phone.

Separately, on Tuesday, June 13, Islamabad police opened a similar criminal and terrorism investigation into Shakir, a freelance journalist based outside of Pakistan, Moeed Pirzada, U.S.-based editor of the news website Global Village Space, and another former army officer, according to news reports and the two journalists, who spoke with CPJ by phone.

The allegations were brought against the accused in relation to unspecified social media posts and videos by the journalists, according to copies of the first information reports, which cite sections of the penal code including criminal conspiracy and abetting mutiny, and the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, which carries a maximum punishment of death or life imprisonment.

“It is unconscionable that foreign-based Pakistani journalists Wajahat Saeed Khan, Shaheen Sehbai, Sabir Shakir, and Moeed Pirzada face potential death sentences under terrorism investigations in retaliation for their critical reporting and commentary,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities must immediately drop these investigations and cease the relentless intimidation and censorship of the media.”

Since Imran Khan’s May 9 arrest, when unprecedented protests targeting police and military installations erupted throughout the country, journalists have been arrested, attacked, and harassed. Mainstream Pakistani news channels have ceased coverage of the former prime minister following military pressure. Anchor Imran Riaz Khan has been missing since May 11 following his arrest at Punjab’s Sialkot Airport, his lawyer Azhar Siddique told CPJ via messaging app.

Khan, Sehbai, Shakir, and Pirzada each critically analyzed the former prime minister’s arrest and aftermath on their social media and YouTube channels.

Khan, whose YouTube-based political affairs channel has around 205,000 subscribers, told CPJ he believes authorities are using the unrest as an excuse to target the four journalists for their previous and ongoing extensive critical coverage of the government and army.

The Pakistani government has submitted several unsuccessful requests to Twitter to take down Khan’s content commenting on the political unrest in Pakistan, according to Khan and emails from Twitter to the journalist, which CPJ reviewed. Khan told CPJ that he fears the government will reference the terrorism investigation to social media companies to bolster attempts to censor him online.

Sehbai, former editor of The News International newspaper and a dual U.S.-Pakistan citizen with around 1.8 million subscribers on Twitter and 8,000 subscribers to his political affairs YouTube channel, told CPJ that he believes that he was targeted because of his criticism of the army and said authorities were trying to intimidate him into silence.

Pirzada, who has dual Pakistani and British citizenship and runs a political affairs YouTube channel with around 392,000 subscribers, told CPJ that he believes the case was an attempt to silence him. A former anchor for the privately owned broadcaster 92 News, Pirzada fled Pakistan to the U.S. in November 2022 following the killing of Pakistani anchor Arshad Sharif.

Shakir, who worked as an anchor with ARY News, told CPJ that he went into exile following a series of investigations opened into him and other journalists, including slain anchor Sharif, beginning in April 2022.

Following the publication of this article, Sarfraz Hussain, press counselor for Pakistan’s U.S. Embassy, emailed CPJ a response credited to Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb. 

The response said the four journalists “have not been charged solely based on their journalism activities” but are “accused of engaging in political activism and propaganda disguised as journalism.” 

“These individuals are facing charges under terrorism laws because there is substantial evidence suggesting their deliberate efforts to incite and provoke the public, not only on May 9 but also in the preceding weeks,” the response said. 

CPJ’s calls and messages to Islamabad Police Inspector-General Akbar Nasir Khan did not immediately receive any replies.