ISLAMABAD - International and domestic watchdogs are denouncing the arrest in Pakistan of a journalist for reporting on demonstrations of activists linked to a local ethnic Pashtun rights movement.
Gohar Wazir, who works for private Satellite TV station Khyber News and runs his personal YouTube channel as well, was taken into custody by security forces along with 21 other people earlier this week on charges of disturbing public order. The rest of the detainees are activists of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has cautioned restrictions on local media would only serve to undermine “the strength of Pakistan’s democracy” and demanded the reporter be unconditionally released.
“Gohar Wazir should not have to face arrest merely for doing the job of reporting the news, even reporting on controversial events such as protests by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement," said Steven Butler, CPJ Asia program coordinator.
Local rights defenders also have called for Wazir’s release. The recently formed Pakhtun Journalists Association has condemned the reporter’s detention as an "attack on journalism.”
CPJ noted in its statement that although the killing of journalists has declined in Pakistan in recent years, the rights defender has documented a rising trend of censorship owing to pressure from the military.
The arrests stemmed from Sunday’s skirmishes between Pakistani troops and PTM members in the volatile North Waziristan district near the Afghan border, killing several activists and wounding many more.
The military’s media wing claimed PTM demonstrators on their way to a rally attacked a security checkpoint. PTM leaders deny the accusations, however, instead claiming troops fired on peaceful protesters who are agitating against alleged military abuses in the district headquarters of Miranshah.
It was not possible to independently verify either claims because the area is currently under curfew and journalists are not allowed to freely travel there.
At least three people were killed and several dozen wounded Sunday morning when Pakistan’s security forces and protesters skirmished at a security checkpoint in North Waziristan.
The military blamed the incident in North Waziristan, close to Afghanistan’s border, on leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a local rights movement.
Wazir interviewed Mohsin Dawar, a central PTM leader who is also an elected member of Pakistan's national legislature, and released it Monday through his YouTube channel before he was rounded up by security officials from his native northwestern city of Bannu.
Dawar was leading Sunday’s rally and managed to escape the arrest but has since spoken to foreign media as well as some local journalists from his hiding place.
In his interview, the PTM leader, has called for investigating the deadly incident and also made a controversial demand for Pakistan’s military to withdraw from the Waziristan district.
The remote Pakistani region had long been beyond the control of the government and condemned by the United States as the “epicentre” of international terrorism.
Under persistent U.S. pressure, Pakistani troops undertook a major ground and air offensive in 2014, dismantling terrorism infrastructure that was blamed for orchestrating deadly attacks inside the country and across the border in Afghanistan.
The security operations also rid adjoining areas of militant networks. Pakistani officials say the counter-militancy offensives were conducted to secure the volatile border in support of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
Retaliatory militant attacks around the country have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis, including members of security forces.
Pakistani authorities say a military-led construction effort is currently underway to install a robust fence and new outposts on the nearly 2,600 kilometer traditionally porous border to consolidate “hard-earned” security gains and deter illegal movements in either direction.
PTM accuses security forces deployed in the boarder region of committing human rights abuses. The movement says it is seeking justice, an end to enforced disappearances, and removal of all checkpoints as well as landmines from the Waziristan territory.
For their part, military officials deny allegations of rights abuses as unfounded, and say security posts in the Waziristan region are being gradually reduced to ease hardships facing local population. But the state is determined not to ease military pressure in the rugged mountain border area, warning it would allow fugitive militants sheltering in Afghan border regions to return to their old strongholds.