Police officials escort arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman (top), the editor-in-chief of the Jang Group, accused of scoring illegal concessions in the purchase of plots in the city, outside National Accountability Bureau (NAB) court in Lahore on March 13, 2020. (Arif ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

Pakistan Anti-corruption Body Arrests Top Media Baron

Critics say Imran Khan government using courts to suppress critical press

[Islamabad] A Pakistan anti-corruption court, investigating a 34-year-old land sale in Lahore, on Friday remanded a media tycoon to custody for 12 days.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s premier anti-graft agency, arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jang Geo Media Group, on Thursday.

The media group owns the country’s biggest group of newspapers, including the largest circulation English-language daily, The News International, as well as the GEO News channel. The group has long been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Imran Khan and various state institutions, including the Accountability Bureau.

Shakil-ur-Rehman was summoned to appear before the NAB inquiry team on Thursday. During questioning, he “failed to establish his innocence” in connection with land that was allegedly illegally allotted to him in 1986.

According to a confidential NAB document (a copy of which has reached The Media Line), “The agency has sufficient evidence proving that Shakil-ur-Rehman was involved in a land transaction scam.”

The document on the businessman’s arrest said, “In 1986, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, with the connivance of Nawaz Shareef, the then-chief minister of Punjab, was allotted 6.75 acres of valuable land in a prime location in a developed housing estate in Lahore city.” (Shareef later became prime minister.)

The report continued, “Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman was allotted excess land at a throw-away price. Thus, the accused obtained a pecuniary advantage.”

Rana Jawad, a Geo news director, told The Media Line that “the said property was purchased by a private party in 1986. Now, all the documents were given to the accountability inquiry team and our chief executive was present in the agency office for further clarification, but without any solid evidence he was arrested.”

He accused the accountability bureau of taking revenge on the media group because it is critical of the government. “PM Imran Khan’s government has completely failed to protect freedom of expression in the country,” Jawad said.

Meanwhile, the Jang Geo group, in an official statement, said, “Over the past 18 months, NAB has sent our reporters, producer, and editors over a dozen notices threatening to shut down our channels due to our reporting and programs about the anti-corruption watchdog.”

However, NAB strongly rejected the allegations and said, “The National Accountability Bureau vehemently believes in freedom of media and will continue in its national duties of taking action against corruption regardless of any propaganda, pressure, browbeating or threats.”

NAB termed the allegations against it concocted, fabricated and baseless. “NAB is adhering to the policy of considering cases without caring about the status of the accused,” it said.

The National Accountability Bureau asked the media to refrain from speculation and to ask its spokesman for comment before broadcasting or publishing any news about NAB, in “light of the judgment of the Honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan.”

There was international reaction to the arrest.

Alice G. Wells, the assistant US secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, said in her latest tweet, “We noted with concern the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the owner of a leading media company in Pakistan.

“Press freedom, due process and the rule of law are pillars of every democracy,” Wells said.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based journalist rights organization, condemned what it called the climate of intimidation in the South Asian nation.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, told The Media Line that “Pakistan is already one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists and such incidents just reinforce the feeling of danger in which they have to work.

“Let’s not be fooled: Shakil-ur-Rehman’s arrest has no legal basis and is an act of harassment designed to bring the Jang media group into line. We call for his immediate release,” Bastard said.

“Pakistani authorities are displaying appalling creativity in their attempts to intimidate journalists who try to work in a completely independent manner. Shakil-ur-Rehman’s arrest on spurious grounds is designed to intimidate the group’s journalists,” he said.

“Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index,” he continued.

“The amount of censorship and the government’s pressure to impose its narrative on the media seem to have never been so high in democratic Pakistan. This tendency sadly reminds one of the dire times of dictatorship, and everything must be done to preserve pluralism among the media,” Bastard said.

Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister for information and broadcasting, strongly rejected the Jang GEO group’s allegation that the government was getting back at CEO Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman for his media house’s criticism of the Khan government.

Addressing a press conference in Islamabad, Awan said that “state institutions are fulfilling their unbiased role.”

She said the effort “to link the arrest of a media house owner by NAB with the freedom of the press is unethical. We expect that Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman and his media group will submit evidence to the court about his innocence instead of blaming the government.”

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former prime minister and a senior opposition leader, told The Media Line that “the NAB lacks the courage to hold an open and transparent inquiry against Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman.”

“The arrest of Mir Shakil is an attack on the freedom of the press,” Abbasi said.

Azeem Rana, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), told The Media Line, “Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman was arrested in quite a dubious manner.”

Rana vowed that “the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists would not leave the journalists and media workers alone in any crisis.”

He further said that despite our “having strong reservations about [the Jang group’s] sackings of staff and non-payment of salaries, PFUJ and its affiliated journalist unions are standing with Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman.

“We don’t want to create any hurdles, but all legal procedures should be followed,” Rana said.

Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said in a press release on Saturday: “The space for dissent in Pakistan is shrinking fast, and anyone who criticizes government actions can become a target.

“Detaining Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman is just the latest case of harassment against Pakistan’s beleaguered media,” Adams said.

Iqbal Khattak, a leading journalist rights activist based in Peshawar, told The Media Line that “Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s arrest comes within the framework of this government’s policy to silence critical media. When someone is cooperating with the officials [investigating him, and he is arrested], such an act speaks of bad faith.”

Javed Kauser, a lawmaker and a senior member of Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, told The Media Line that “our government strictly believes in freedom of the press and is taking all-out steps to facilitate the [work of the] media community.”

“We welcome positive criticism, but when media houses cross the boundaries of criticism and begin to play the role of a political rival, then problems arise and such a role negates the principles of real journalism,” he said.

Shakil-ur-Rehman’s “arrest has nothing to do with freedom of the press,” he added. It solely concerns a “business transaction in which Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman misused his relations with high-ups and bought billions of rupees worth of state-owned land at cheap prices.

“Our judiciary is free. He [Shakil-ur-Rehman] should prove his innocence in court,” Kauser said.

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