WASHINGTON - A U.K-based correspondent for Dawn, Pakistan’s main English language newspaper, filed a story on the terror attack last Friday in London and her choice of words triggered criticism by several Pakistani government authorities.
The attacker, Usman Khan, 28, a British citizen whose family originates from Pakistan, put on a fake suicide vest on Friday and started attacking people with knives before he was confronted by bystanders and shot dead by police officers near London Bridge. He stabbed five people, two of whom died later of the wounds sustained in the attack.
The reporter’s identification of the attacker as a British citizen of Pakistani origin was deemed as unpatriotic and defamatory because of the usage of the phrase “Pakistani origin” and the linkage to Pakistan.
Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Science & Technology, took to his official Twitter page and criticized Dawn’s writers and editors for the story.
“Dawn walas [people] please have some mercy on this Nation, shocked on your cheap attempt to link a British terrorist to Pakistan, Anwar Al Awlaki and Anjem ch[Chaudhary] both are brit origin nothing to do with Kashmir or Pak, Britain should handle its problem within—irresponsible n cheap attitude,” Hussain wrote in a tweet on Sunday.
Hussain’s tweet was retweeted by Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights and she accused Dawn of pursuing an agenda.
“Dawn has its own agenda - read The News where their UK based reporter has given details of the man's life incl the fact he was born in UK!,” she said.
Following these tweets, social media in Pakistan has been trending the hashtag #BoycottIndianDawn, accusing the media network of being anti-Pakistan and pro Indian.
Riots in Islamabad
On Monday evening, angry rioters surrounded Dawn’s Islamabad office, and called for staffers to be hanged.
The crowd reportedly shouted, “Long Live Pakistan Army, Death to Dawn” and harassed employees for several hours until police arrived to dispel the crowd.
An employee of the newspaper, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he was physically assaulted.
“They pushed me around and cornered me; they said they wouldn’t let me pass through until I shouted “Long Live Pakistan Army-Death to Dawn,” the employee said.
The newspaper has not issued a statement on the attack against its office. However, they did publish an article, giving the accounts of what transpired over the weekend. The original story that sparked the controversy has not been removed from the newspaper’s website as of Tuesday evening.
Rights Groups Reactions
Several international and local rights groups and organizations advocating for the freedom of press voiced concerns over the incident and urged Pakistani authorities to ensure the safety of Dawn’s reporters in the country.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement Tuesday calling on Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights and Information Ministry to address the situation.
“HRCP has received alarming reports that access to @dawn_com's office in Islamabad is being blocked by protestors shouting pro-army slogans. We are seriously concerned about the security of Dawn's personnel and urge @mohrpakistan and @MoIB_Official to take immediate action.” HRCP said in a tweet.
Paris-based Reporter Without Borders, a global watchdog monitoring press freedom around the world, also issued a statement Tuesday urging authorities to take immediate measures.
“Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Pakistani authorities to issue a public and unequivocal condemnation of last night’s siege of the Islamabad headquarters of Pakistan’s oldest English-language daily, Dawn, by an angry crowd of demonstrators calling for it to be banned on completely spurious grounds,” the statement said.
In statement sent to VOA, New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international organization defending reporters around the world, expressed concerns and urged Pakistan to investigate reports of death threats against journalists.
“Pakistan authorities must prevent demonstrations against the Dawn newspaper from turning violent, and should investigate death threats made against its staffers,” CPJ said.
Some opposition figures also took issue with the threats made against Dawn.
Senator Usman Kakar, a member of Pakistan’s Senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights and a member of the opposition party Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami (PMAP) party, deemed the incident as a serious threat to press freedom and urged the senate to discuss it.
“This issue needs to be brought up and discussed in the Senate. Media [in Pakistan] is scrutinized and under a lot of pressure…they are afraid of the establishment,” the senator told VOA.
Bilawal Bhutto–Zardari, the leader of Pakistan’s People’s Party, PPP, one of the main opposition parties in the country, criticized the government for tolerating attack against the media.
“Visited the offices of @dawn_com today in Islamabad. Outrageous that a major media house can be attacked by a mob in our capital city right under the government’s nose. Senate Human rights committee has already taken notice of this latest attack on freedom of the press,” Zardari tweeted on Tuesday.
Some journalists in Pakistan allege that the Pakistani government organized the mob in an effort to silence an independent and credible news outlet in the country.
Iqbal Khattak, the head of Freedom Network, a watchdog organization that monitors press freedom in the country, told VOA that the incident seemed pre-planned.
“This incident was really dangerous. Journalists in Pakistan need to ask the government to investigate the matter and ask, ‘who these people were’ and ‘what their issue is’. It seems like the mob was staged,” Khattak said.
The ruling Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has not immediately reacted to the riot incident and threats against Dawn.
VOA’s Aurangzeb Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad. Some of the information used in this report came from Reuters.