Waqar Satti is usually out covering Pakistan’s parliament. But accusations of blasphemy and online death threats have forced the senior political correspondent to stop work.
“I haven’t been in the field since this happened,” Satti told VOA. “I left my city, my family is worried and affected by the case, I have four children.”
Police in the city of Rawalpindi filed a case against Satti in late August over a video the Geo News senior political correspondent shared on Twitter. A First Information Report, or FIR, on the case — the preliminary stage to a criminal complaint — lists blasphemy and defamation charges.
The legal complaint says that in the video, Satti falsely attributes anti-Islamic quotes to former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Satti denied that, saying he only “compiled” interviews and statements by Khan. The video has since been deleted.
Since the case was filed, Satti has been trolled and threatened on Twitter.
“First, they used abusing language and started insulting me on Twitter. Then there were threats to kill,” said Satti. Trending hashtags labeled the journalist a blasphemer and called for him to be hanged, he told VOA.
Fearing for his safety, Satti said he had to stop work.
The journalist says Geo’s management has been sympathetic to him and asked that he “delete the tweet so the situation can cool down.”
“I don’t know what will happen, but I am determined,” said Satti. “Every other person is advising me to leave the country, but I will stay and fight the legal battle. I hope that I will get justice from the courts.”
Pakistan has some of the strictest blasphemy laws, with those convicted facing life imprisonment or even a death sentence. The accusation can also increase the risk of threats or attack.
“This is the first-ever blasphemy case against a journalist in Punjab. Also nearly 100,000 people ran a dangerous trend on social media against (Satti),” said Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union Journalists (PFUJ).
“We know what happens to people facing blasphemy charges in this country,” he told VOA.
While blasphemy charges are rare for the media, the wider use of legal action to retaliate against reporters is of concern to the PFUJ and other media advocates.
Coverage deemed critical of the military or Pakistan intelligence agencies, or reporting on enforced disappearances, human rights violations or the Pashtun Protection Movement—a group demanding equal rights and protections for minority Pashtuns — carry risk of threats or legal action.
VOA contacted Marriyum Aurangzeb, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, for comment. Her staff told VOA that the minister was busy and would send a response when available. As of publication, no response had arrived.
Aurangzeb however has commented on Satti’s case on social media. In an August 28 tweet, she said, “I condemn the FIR (First Information Report) against Waqar Satti by Punjab government in strongest words.”
The Islamabad-based journalist Asad Toor has also faced legal action and a physical attack for his work.
In September 2020, authorities accused him of “propagating against the army and the state.”
“The reason was only that I challenged the people who believe they are not answerable and unaccountable,” he told VOA.
When charges were filed, Toor says the privately owned TV channel he worked for terminated his contract.
So, he started a YouTube channel — Asad Toor Uncensored — to keep reporting.
A court in December 2020 dismissed the case due to a lack of evidence. But Toor’s ordeal was not over.
Then, in a separate incident in May 2021, three unidentified assailants came to Toor’s home, tied the journalist up, beat and threatened him.
Still, he refused to be silenced. “Whatever I had to suffer, I decided to continue it. So, I continued with the same spirit,” Toor said.
In March of this year, Islamabad police opened an investigation into the accusations that he led an unauthorized protest. That case, said Toor, “is still open.”
More harassment of the media followed elections in April, including legal action filed against four journalists deemed supportive of Khan’s government, including two from the ARY network.
In late May, legal complaints were filed against all four on accusations that they published statements to cause “public mischief” by being critical of the state or army, the Committee to Protect Journalists said at the time.
In a statement at the time, CPJ said the “blizzard of harassing” investigations “makes a mockery of (Pakistan’s) claims to uphold press freedom.”
VOA reached out to at least three of the journalists, but none responded.
Call for reform
Iqbal Khattak, head of the Pakistan-based media watchdog, the Freedom Network, said the filing of lawsuits is a tactic to ensnare journalists in lengthy disputes.
“I think that’s a new strategy on part of the state and state institutions to get you entangled in the legal battle,” Khattak told VOA. “We regard these legal cases against journalists [as] equally dangerous for press freedom in the country.”
One solution, said Khattak, is to improve media literacy. Journalists should also take steps toward a more professional and ethical approach, he said.
Butt of the PFUJ said that Pakistan’s laws make it easy for authorities to arrest journalists.
He said that the information minister has agreed with media that “there are laws that violate” Pakistan’s Constitution. Under Article 19, Pakistan guarantees freedom of expression and the press.
“We have formed a joint action committee comprising of all stakeholders and engaged with the government information ministry, the current information minister, to reform the laws,” Butt said.
Pakistan’s journalists have had some success in pushing back against reforms they believe will stifle the press.
In February, Khan’s government enacted amendments to the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, a move they said would tackle false news.
The country’s media filed a petition, saying the change would make it easier to prosecute journalists. In a landmark decision in April, the Islamabad High Court rescinded the law as “unconstitutional.”
This story originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.