A Pakistani reporter has been detained and charged under cybercrime laws for criticizing security forces on social media, officials and his family said Friday, the latest sign of a state crackdown on free speech.
Zafarullah Achakzai, who works at Urdu daily Qudrat, was picked up from his house on Sunday by the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), the security force deployed in restive Balochistan province.
“FC personnel in uniform came in five vehicles and raided my house late Sunday night. They cordoned the streets and asked for my son without mentioning any charge,” Achakzai’s father Naimatullah Achakzai, who is also chief editor of Qudrat, told AFP.
“We did not know where they took him... After five days they handed him over to the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency), which charged him under cybercrime laws for criticising the FC,” Achakzai said.
He said that Zafarullah appeared in court on Thursday and was remanded into FIA custody for six more days as the investigation continues.
Two local government officials confirmed Zafarullah’s arrest and charges.
“If my son had done anything wrong, he should have been arrested according to the law and not picked up in the middle of the night like an outlaw,” Achakzai said.
The Balochistan Union of Journalists criticized the “illegal confinement”.
Zafarullah had criticised the FC on his Facebook page for the deteriorating law and order situation in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, and for security forces’ “failure” to bring the perpetrators of sectarian killings to justice, a colleague told AFP, requesting anonymity.
“If his criticisms violated any law, he should have been arrested properly as he like every other citizen has right to due process,” the colleague said.
Pakistan is ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, and reporting critical of the military is considered a major red flag, with journalists at times detained, beaten and even killed.
The country has also had a history of enforced disappearances over the past decade. In January five social media activists went missing for several weeks after taking a stand against religious intolerance and criticizing the military, raising concerns of government involvement that were denied by officials.
Pakistan’s parliament passed the cybercrime law last August, despite opposition from rights activists. Campaigners have long complained of creeping censorship in the name of protecting religion or preventing obscenity.
Human rights organizations said they feared more arrests.
“We are concerned at the authorities’ zero-tolerance for critics on social media,” the independent Freedom Network said in a statement, adding that Zafarullah’s detainment was a “grim” sign that “more arrests will follow”.