The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom. 

Matiullah Jan, a senior Pakistani journalist, was abducted from Islamabad’s sector G-6 on the 21st of July, in broad daylight.

His car was found parked outside a government school where his wife, Kaneez Sughra, is employed.

Sughra is reported to have said that more than five people—mostly clad in black police uniforms—abducted her husband. The security footage showed that almost a dozen men, mostly in uniforms, intercepted him and forced him into a car. Jan was also seen tossing his phone across the school fence, only for a security guard to return it to a uniformed man.

Sughra also mentioned that unknown men had been following her husband for the last few weeks. And this is not the first time. A few years back, an unidentified assailant threw a brick at his car.

In the same week, on Wednesday, Jan was due to appear in the Supreme Court after it took a suo moto notice of a purportedly contemptuous, defamatory tweet posted by him where he inveighed against the Supreme Court’s verdict against one of the judges, Justice Faiz Isa.

The news of Jan’s disappearance took the country by a storm. It spread like wildfire around and caught the attention of journalists, politicians, legal fraternity, and diplomatic circles alike. They pressured the government into recovering him safe and sound. His abduction sparked a movement on social media—soon after his disappearance, there were hashtags demanding his release cascading all across Twitter and Facebook.

He was released nearly 12 long hours after his abduction, in a secluded place in Fateh Jung.

Jan told multiple news sources that he was taken to an unknown location. Later on, he was driven around the city before being brought to Fateh Jung. There, some local residents helped him contact his family.

Pakistan classifies as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and media workers to live in. The concept of press freedom is a faint speckle—it hardly exists. The state, especially under Imran Khan’s government, practices high-handed crackdown on “free speech” and “independent journalism”, and frequently receives severe criticism from journalists and other groups for its repressive attitudes.

In 2018, Jan was labeled anti-state by the military for his bitter criticism of the judiciary and army. Jan, it turns out, has never shied away from being the center of controversial subjects.

The case of Jan’s abduction is terrifying but not surprising; harrowing but not uncommon; illustrating an incident that is periodically re-enacted in Pakistan. It’s just another addition to the list of abductions that take place every year when people take the liberty to criticize state bodies in Pakistan. It’s not an aberration. And he isn’t the only one.

In the last few years, we saw the state’s intolerance of “freedom of speech” effervescing in myriads of cases.

Harsh measures were enacted against people from different walks of life—academia, politics, journalism, civil society—when they decided to speak freely.

Many of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement’s (PTM)—a movement that campaigns for Pashtun rights—leaders such as Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were attacked and arrested for participating in rallies and corner meetings of the PTM. Even people who supported the movement faced dire consequences. Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, an academic and activist, for example, was arrested when he stood in solidarity with the PTM at a peaceful protest. Similarly, Ammar Rashid, along with a few other protestors, was arrested for demanding the release of Manzoor Pashteen—a Pashtun peace activist and the leader of the PTM.

Another example is Junaid Hafeez. The young lecturer was charged in a blasphemy case over a Facebook page and was held in solitary confinement beginning from 2014. Later, in 2019, he was convicted and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s barbarous blasphemy laws.

Asia Bibi’s case is similar. In 2009, a dispute with her neighbors culminated in an accusation by a group of local women who said that she had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Following that harrowing episode, Asia Bibi spent eight years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy.

In 2018, new shows hosts such as Talat Hussain, Murtaza Solangi and Nusrat Javed either quit or lost their jobs as a consequence of heavily criticizing the jailing of the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz.

Sometime in the same year, Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) sent out an advisory note to media outlets, asking them to report on topics such as “violence”, “kidnapping”, “sexual abuse” and “terrorism” in a restrained way.

Media outlets, news show hosts, newspapers, and journalists are often made to choke back on news that the state finds offensive in some way.

Muhammad Hanif, a famous Pakistani author, once said in an interview, “When you see a blank space in a newspaper where your article should have been, it’s slightly terrifying”. He added “It reminds you of the old-fashioned censorship that we had during military dictatorships.”

Matiullah Jan’s case makes me think of how disturbingly ordinary his story is. I’ve grown up listening to harrowing cases like his. Abductions, threats, and legal consequences are common for people who choose to speak their minds without dissembling.

This heavy-handed repression hangs chillingly over all facets of the state—civil society, media, politics—like murky gray storm clouds, ready to thunder.

As the residents of Pakistan, we’ve become accustomed to surviving in repressive environments. But for how long?

Today, it was Matiullah Jan. Tomorrow, it could be anyone—even you or me.

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Izza Malik

By Izza Malik

Editorial Fellow