Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan Releases Journalist on Bail; X Platform Blockade Persists


FILE - Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, center, speaks during a demonstration called by a journalists union to condemn attacks on journalists, in Islamabad, May 28, 2021.
FILE - Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, center, speaks during a demonstration called by a journalists union to condemn attacks on journalists, in Islamabad, May 28, 2021.

Authorities in Pakistan released an independent journalist from jail Saturday, 20 days after he was arrested on charges of broadcasting “anti-state” commentaries through his social media platforms.

The detention of Asad Ali Toor outraged free speech advocates and triggered calls for his unconditional release.

Toor’s lawyers sought relief from different courts, arguing that his detention breached Pakistani laws protecting freedom of speech. His lawyer, Imaan Mazari-Hazir, confirmed Toor's release.

The journalist, who has nearly 300,000 followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, and more than 160,000 subscribers to his YouTube political affairs channel, was taken into custody on February 26 by the Federal Investigation Agency, or FIA.

He was accused of running a “malicious” and “anti-state” campaign through his social media platforms against Pakistani government officials and state institutions, charges the journalist denied. He accused authorities of punishing him in retaliation for his work.

Toor was frequently broadcasting commentaries critical of the chief justice of Pakistan and the country’s powerful military establishment before being arrested at his residence in the capital, Islamabad.

FIA operatives also seized Toor’s broadcast devices during the raid on his home and pressured him while in custody to disclose his sources, his lawyers said.

Toor’s release on bail came a day after the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, demanded he be “immediately and unconditionally” released, saying his arrest constituted an “egregious violation of press freedom” in Pakistan.

The CPJ statement also urged authorities to stop using Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and other “draconian laws” to persecute journalists and silence critical reporting and commentary.

Matiullah Jan, a well-known Pakistani journalist with 1 million followers on X and more than 270,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, criticized Toor’s arrest, saying he was denied the due process of law.

“Arresting a journalist who is already cooperating in the inquiry, putting handcuffs on him and pushing him around to produce him in court, not allowing his family members to meet him — this is all abuse of the process of law against a journalist for reporting [critical] things,” Jan told VOA.

Toor’s arrest came a week after authorities in Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab took a nationally known journalist, Imran Riaz Khan, into custody on alleged corruption charges.

The jailed Khan, who has 5.6 million followers on X and 4.6 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, denied any wrongdoing and told the judge during a recent court hearing that he was being punished for criticizing alleged state-sponsored rigging in the February 8 national elections.

Pakistan’s elections were marred by allegations of widespread voter fraud to enable pro-military parties to win the elections, charges officials have rejected.

X remains inaccessible

Meanwhile, 28 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, signed a joint statement this week demanding Pakistani authorities remove a monthlong blockade of X.

Pakistan has officially refused to acknowledge the restriction, but independent foreign and domestic digital media monitors have confirmed it.

The ban has forced Pakistanis to bypass it through virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow users to hide their identities and locations online.

“We, a collective of human rights activists and civil society organizations, express profound concern over the increasing instances of internet shutdowns and social media platform blocking, specifically in the lead-up to and following the general elections in Pakistan,” read the joint statement released Friday.

It stated, “The arbitrary blocking of platforms, including the prolonged and unannounced disruption of ‘X’ since 17 February 2024, is a sobering illustration of growing digital censorship in the country.”

The blockade of X went into effect more than a week after authorities had shut down nationwide mobile phone and internet services during the February 8 parliamentary elections. The move fueled widespread allegations that Pakistan’s military-backed interim government had manipulated the voting process and its outcome to enable its allies to win the elections.

The joint civil society statement said, “These actions not only infringe upon the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information but also set a troubling precedent of throttling genuine political discourse, including plurality of voices in the country.”