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Country Backgrounder

Caught between the state and extremists: Country profile of Pakistan

Pakistani journalists shout slogans to condemn the killing of journalists, Wednesday, 9 September 2015 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Placard on right reads
Pakistani journalists shout slogans to condemn the killing of journalists, Wednesday, 9 September 2015 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Placard on right reads "stop attacks on media."

AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

"One never knows whether the Taliban is gunning for you or whether the agencies are gunning for you ... and sometimes you don't know because one is operating at the behest of the other."
Najam Sethi, Pakistani journalist
CPJ, Roots of Impunity


Attacked by state agents and the military on one side, and militant and extremist groups on the other, the situation for human rights defenders in Pakistan is one of the most dangerous in the world. A weak civilian government has handed over much power to the military, which is absolved from scrutiny. Investigations into murders and disappearances have led nowhere. Under this climate, impunity reigns.




193.2 mi


US$ 278.9 bi


President Mamnoon Hussain, who took office in 2013, holds a largely ceremonial role. Nawaz Sharif was serving his third term as prime minister when he was ousted from office in July 2017 in the wake of corruption allegations. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was appointed interim Prime Minister by the President. In June 2018, he was replaced by former Chief Justice Nasir-ul Mulk, who ran the interim government until the parliamentary elections in July 2018. At those elections, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 116 of 270 seats contested, 21 short of the full majority. Khan is expected to be sworn in as prime minister in mid-August.

Member of:

The Commonwealth, Organisation of Islamic Conference, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, United Nations

IFEX members working in the country:

Pakistan Press Foundation |
Bytes for All |
Digital Rights Foundation |

Press Freedom Ranking:

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2018: 139 out of 180 countries

A panoply of abuse - killings, abductions, online surveillance and blasphemy laws

Pakistan faces significant security challenges alongside persistent conflicts on its border areas, with frequent violent attacks on civilians by extremist groups. The December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar where 149 people were killed, most of them children, led to the government's ceding of significant constitutional and decision making powers to the military under a national action plan to end terrorism , specifically in the areas of national security and human rights. In 2015 alone, over 9,400 people had been arrested for terrorism offenses, among them journalists. Suicide bombings and other deadly attacks by members of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups affected nearly all of Pakistan.

There is often an extremely high level of violence during election periods. In the lead up to the general election of 2013, more than 200 people were killed in bomb attacks at political rallies. During the 2018 general election, over 170 people were murdered by bombs in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces; the victims included prominent local candidates. Journalists also find themselves subjected to violence, threats and harassment at election time. In June 2018, ahead of the July elections, the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) launched a reporting and monitoring mechanism for election related violence directed against media personnel and institutions.

The PPF monitors the panoply of abuses suffered by the media in its regular reports on press freedom. In May 2017, it reported that three media personnel had been killed between January 2016 and April 2017, and thirteen more injured in attacks while they were carrying out their work, and others arrested and briefly detained. Criminal defamation laws have led to convictions, such as the January 2017 sentencing to five years in prison of two journalists for defaming a property developer whom they accused of malpractice. Abductions are a particular peril faced by reporters in conflict and tribal areas, thought to be under-reported as families fear publicity could worsen the situation. Women journalists are particularly vulnerable, suffering sexual harassment and intimidation from both within their profession and outside. As a result of these grave threats, and of the fear of constant surveillance, journalists are increasingly self-censoring.

In November 2017, the Pakistani government suspended private TV channels and social media sites in order to prevent coverage of public protest.

A draft 'Journalists' Welfare and Protection' bill was introduced in 2017, but it was criticised by the PPF for failing to include measures to tackle impunity and attacks on the press.

According to Front Line Defenders, Pakistan is also a very dangerous environment for human rights defenders and activists working in all areas of rights protection. They suffer threats, attack, abduction and even murder, and include people working on transgender, labour, religious and minority rights, and advocates tackling violence against women. It would appear that there are few, if any, areas where human rights defenders can practice without fear. A recent example is the murder of lawyer, Muhammad Jan Gigyani, who specialised in labour and women's rights, shot dead by unknowns in March 2017. Gigyani had performed funeral rites for a transgender woman and rights activist, Alesha, murdered in May 2016.

To add to the pressure, August 2016 saw the passing into law of the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill that criminalises a broad spectrum of speech, instituting harsh prison sentences and deepening surveillance. One troubling clause provides up to three years in prison for publishing information 'likely to harm or intimidate the reputation or privacy' of a person, severely curtailing investigation into alleged abuses by government officers. The Pakistan digital rights organisation, Bytes For All, calls the law open to misuse for 'political/ideological reasons', giving the authorities 'absolute control over the flow of information'. The passing of the legislation was carried out with no transparency and little if any public scrutiny or liaison with civil society or the private sector. A recent example of this lack of openness was the sudden closure in January 2017 of the popular Khabaristan Times satirical website. No reason was given, other than that the measure had been taken after the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority had received complaints from 'people and institutions'. In January 2018, Bytes For All issued a statement outlining the grave threats to online free expression in Pakistan; in addition to network shutdowns, they listed the government's use of 'cyber armies' to spread lies and incite threats against activists, and the kidnapping of bloggers. In a welcome statement in February 2018, a High Court judge declared network disconnections illegal and a disproportionate response to security threats.

Pakistan also has harsh blasphemy laws that can draw down the death penalty. A December 2015 report by the Digital Rights Network Pakistan points out that the law applies to written as well as 'visible representations, imputations, innuendo or insinuations' and extends to online activity, 'leaving a lot of power to listeners or unrelated third parties to allege blasphemy'. It reports that harsher blasphemy legislation introduced in 1987 led to a rise in vigilante violence particularly against religious minorities, and which the government showed little inclination to address. The death sentence served against Taimore Raza in July 2017 for sharing 'hateful' images on social media is a stark example of the arbitrary application of blasphemy laws, alongside government surveillance. The presence of such laws feeds into the dangerously high levels of religious intolerance among the Pakistan public at large, as shown by the appalling murder of student Mashal Khan in April 2017, set upon and lynched by other students, apparently spurred on by a university registrar's notice that he had committed blasphemy on social media sites.

The poster of a Pashto language film is pictured as policemen guard the entrance of a cinema at the site of a grenade attack in Peshawar, 11 February 2014
The poster of a Pashto language film is pictured as policemen guard the entrance of a cinema at the site of a grenade attack in Peshawar, 11 February 2014

REUTERS/Khuram Parvez

Impunity – a catalogue of obfuscation and inaction

In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published its report, Roots of Impunity, which cited Pakistan as the fourth deadliest nation in the world for the press, with at least 23 targeted killings of journalists since 2003. Many more became victims of suicide bombings and other conflict related violence. Since the report was published, CPJ has recorded eight more killings, five of them clearly targeted.

Convictions for the murders of media workers and human rights defenders are rare. Families and supporters of the killed and disappeared live under a pall of impunity as they attempt to find justice. A small sampling of cases languishing in impunity includes:

• Lawyer and regional coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Rashid Rehman was shot dead in his office in May 2014. He had been defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy.

Shan Dahar, bureau chief of Abb Takk Television, who died after being shot in January 2014. His alleged killers are being tried in absentia having fled the country. In April 2016, Sindh police announced they would re-open the investigation into Dahar's death, but as yet there has been minimal progress.

• In August 2015, reporter Zeenat Shahzadi was abducted in Lahore. She had been investigating another kidnapping. The first female journalist to be forcibly disappeared, she is among 86 disappearances registered with the non-governmental Human Rights Commission on Pakistan (not to be confused with the National Commission for Human Rights). Happily, Zeenat was safely recovered on 20 October 2017. However, the details surrounding her ordeal - including those responsible - remain unknown.

The killings continue into 2017, with the shooting death in February of a Samaa television channel staffer when its news gathering van in Karachi was fired on by members of the Taliban. In June 2017 journalist Bakhsheesh Elahi was murdered in the city of Haripur by persons unknown.

Human rights mechanisms 'toothless'

The establishment of Pakistan's National Commission for Human Rights in 2015 was welcomed by local rights groups but its remit is severely limited, leading the International Commission of Jurists to describe it as 'toothless at birth'. The Commission cannot inquire into 'the act or practice of the intelligence agencies', and when it comes to abuses of the armed forces, it can only request a report from the government and make recommendations. The creation of this mechanism has been accompanied by shrinking space for civil society investigation. In October 2015, new rules for international NGOs operating in Pakistan were put in place, requiring that they register and obtain prior permission for any activity in the country. Registration can be cancelled for 'involvement in any activity inconsistent with Pakistan's national interests, or contrary to Government policy'. An endowment fund set up by the government to compensate journalists who have been injured or killed, while welcome, does not, as the Secretary General of the Pakistan Press Foundation Owais Aslam Ali said in a July 2017 interview "address the point of holding those who inflict violence on journalists to account", adding "Unless you tackle the impunity, simply paying the victims is not going to end attacks on journalists."

Pakistan is one of the focus countries for UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of impunity. While the plan has helped to create dialogue between media stakeholders and the government and advance new legislation for the protection of journalists, institutional weakness and capacity issues have slowed implementation and prevented a significant improvement in levels of safety and prosecutions.

Pakistan has signed or ratified most key United Nations conventions protecting human rights, but tellingly, not the Convention on the Protection of all Persons From Enforced Disappearance. In July 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee in a highly critical report, identified widespread human rights issues. It recommended that Pakistan review its legal provisions relating to freedom of expression, and demanded full investigations and reparations for journalists and human rights defenders who had been attacked, killed and disappeared. It also pointed to flaws in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and urged that it be brought in line with international standards.

In November 2017, Pakistan came before the UN Council on Human Rights under its Universal Periodic Review process, where its adherence to human rights over the previous five years came under scrutiny. A joint submission to the UPR, delivered jointly by the PPF, ARTICLE 19 and IFEX, pointed to the deterioration for free expression in Pakistan over that time. The organisations recommended systematic review of constitution, legal and administrative frameworks, meaningful action to protect against and find justice for victims of violence, and reform of laws governing digital media, all crucial to tackling the impunity for rights abusers that prevails in Pakistan. Without these measures, state agents, militias and extremists will continue to threaten, attack and even murder with impunity. Following the review, PPF, ARTICLE 19 and IFEX issued a statement in March 2018 expressing their disappointment that Pakistan had merely
'noted' a series of recommendations aimed at protecting journalists; the group also 'deeply regretted' that Pakistan refused to contemplate removing several major threats to free expression and other rights in Pakistan, such as blasphemy legislation and the death penalty.

More Resources & Information

Shan Dahar: A family's fight for justice

Asia & Pacific Pakistan Press Foundation 18 June 2016

On 1 January 2014, Pakistani journalist Shan Dahar was shot by armed men and taken to a local hospital where he remained unattended until he succumbed to his injuries. More than four years later, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

2016 Report on Impunity for Crimes against Journalists in Pakistan: Justice Delayed and Justice Denied

Asia & Pacific Pakistan Press Foundation 1 November 2016

In this report, the Pakistan Press Foundation finds a "near absolute level of impunity" in Pakistan due to a lack of interest by the federal and provincial governments as well as employers in pursuing legal cases of violence against journalists.

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