An international media watchdog has denounced Pakistan for investigating several journalists because they posted photos online of their murdered Saudi colleague Jamal Khashoggi.
Reporters Without Borders said Monday it is "appalled" to learn about the latest case of "intimidation" of journalists in Pakistan.Critics note incidents of reporters and social media activists being detained, harassed and beaten in Pakistan have risen during the past year, prompting writers and bloggers to self-sensor.
The investigations were initiated last month by the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency, accusing a group of six known outspoken journalists of planning and executing a "targeted social media campaign" against Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to Pakistan in February.
Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, noted the campaign throughout the crown prince's visit simply consisted of repeatedly posting photos of Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October.
"This kind of harassment of journalists, whose only crime is posting content online that displeases the authorities, is symptomatic of the treatment that the Pakistani political establishment reserves for dissidents," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk.
But the cybercrime unit insisted in a leaked letter dated March 13 that the campaign "conveyed a very disrespectful message" towards the visiting Saudi leader.
There was no immediate government reaction available to the RSF statement, nor have officials publicly offered any comments since the controversial investigations began.
The Saudi crown prince announced $20 billion investment, including a $10 billion oil refinery and petrochemical complex in Pakistan, a traditionally close Saudi ally, where the government desperately needs foreign investment to overcome critical economic challenges facing the country.
The Pakistani government and the powerful military institution have repeatedly denied state agencies are being used to silence critical voices to undermine media freedom in the country.
"With truth so much stranger than fiction, perhaps it is futile — even dangerous — to demand who really is behind Pakistan's Draconian descent, with all its attendant absurdities," lamented the prestigious English daily DAWN in its recent editorial on the investigations into journalists.
Observers say journalists in Pakistan are increasingly turning to the social media networks to express themselves freely, with some accusing the military of forcing them out of their jobs for being critical of the security institution's alleged interference in national political affairs.
The army denies charges it is meddling in national politics and government officials blame rapid growth of of social media outlets such as Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, for taking away advertising revenues from the traditional mainstream media and plunging them in financial troubles.
Pakistani media owners have laid off thousands of journalists and other staff in recent months, citing financial constraints and blaming the government for not honoring claims for past advertising spending under its new advertising policy.
Government spokespeople insist current economic crisis facing Pakistan does not allow it to continue with past practices of undue financial favors extended to media outlets by former rulers of the country in the name of advertisements, though critics allege the new policy is meant to create a complaint media.