ISLAMABAD - Pakistan Thursday night blocked the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists from entering the country and forced him to return to the United States, claiming he had been blacklisted by the country's Interior Ministry.
The global press freedom group Friday denounced the “baffling” expulsion of Steven Butler as “a slap in the face to those concerned about press freedom” in Pakistan.
The CPJ said in a statement that immigration authorities at the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore denied entry to Butler although he had a valid journalist visa, citing “a blacklist managed by the Ministry of Interior.”
CPJ executive director Joel Simon has demanded a full explanation from Pakistani authorities.
“If the government is interested in demonstrating its commitment to a free press, it should conduct a swift and transparent investigation into this case,” said Simon.
The Pakistani government has not yet responded to CPJ.
Alice Wells, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, called on Pakistan to reconsider the decision.
"Refusing entry to the coordinator of a press freedom program with a valid visa increases concerns about restrictions on journalists in Pakistan," she tweeted Friday. "A free & independent media is indispensable to any democracy, and we urge Pakistan to reconsider this decision."
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was disappointed by the government's decision to send Butler back from the airport and demanded the decision be re-evaluated.
“On one hand, the government claims to be building a softer image of Pakistan. On the other, it refuses entry to a reputed international journalist with a valid visa,” the commission said.
Amnesty International said Butler’s deportation is “an alarming sign that freedom of expression continues to be under attack in Pakistan." It demanded that the decision be reversed immediately.
Butler was traveling to the country for a conference this week debating human rights in Pakistan. He has been regularly visiting the country to work with local media advocacy groups and activists. Butler’s expulsion comes amid growing censorship concerns in Pakistan, although officials decry them as misplaced.
Critics blame the powerful military for blocking media coverage critical of the institution’s increased role in Pakistani politics and abuses security forces allegedly committed during counterterrorism operations, particularly in the remote tribal districts near the Afghan border.
Army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor has repeatedly rejected the charges as propaganda.