ISLAMABAD: Human rights organisations blas­t­­ed the Pakistan government on Friday over deportation of the Asia Programme Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Steven Butler was denied entry into the country and was deported to Wash­ing­ton via Doha on Wednesday after being told that his name was on the interior ministry’s “stop list”.

“A border officer at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport told Butler that his journalist visa was valid, but it was voided because his name was ‘on a stop list of the interior ministry’,” according to a CJP statement.

“Last night, Pakistani immigration authorities denied entry to CPJ’s Asia Programme Coordinator Steven Butler, citing a stop list maintained by the ministry of interior,” the CPJ said in the statement released on Thursday.

It said Mr Butler’s passport was “confiscated” by the airport authorities and he was forced to board a flight bound for Doha. “When he arrived in Doha, authorities there placed him on a flight to Washington,” the CPJ added.

While on board the plane, Steven Butler told the CPJ that the crew had seized his passport and boarding pass and that he was in “a kind of restrictive custody”.

“Pakistani authorities’ move to block Steven Butler from entering the country is baffling and a slap in the face to those concerned about press freedom,” the statement quo­ted Joel Simon, the CPJ exe­cutive director, as saying.

“Pakistani authorities should give a full explanation of their decision to bar Butler and correct this error. If the government is interested in demonstrating its commitment to a free press, it should conduct a swift and transparent investigation into this case.”

Mr Butler had arrived in Lahore to participate in a two-day event, the Asma Jahangir Conference — Road­­map for Human Ri­­ghts in Pakistan, which is to begin today (Satur­day).

Attempts to get in touch with Interior Minister Ijaz Shah and Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on In­­f­o­r­­mation, for the government’s version were unsuccessful.

The Committee to Protect Journalists had voiced concern last month over a proposal to establish “media courts”.

Last year, the organisation had released a special report on Pakistan after recording testimonies by a number of journalists. Most of them said the climate for press freedom was deteriorating steadily, even though violence against journalists had declined.

According to the CPJ, the journalists had “painted a picture of a media under siege”.

The Human Rights Com­mission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Amnesty International expressed alarm over Mr Butler’s deportation and called for its reversal.

In a tweet, the HRCP said it was “disappointed by the government’s decision” to deport Steven Butler, adding that the decision “must be re-evaluated”.

“On one hand, the government claims it is building a soft image of Pakistan and, on the other, it refuses entry to a reputed international journalist with a valid visa,” the HRCP said.

Amnesty International described the move “an alarming sign that freedom of expression continues to be under attack in Pakistan”.

“The decision must be reversed immediately,” the rights group said in a tweet.

Afzal Butt, president of his own faction of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, termed the episode unfortunate and lamented that it had brought a bad name to the country.

He urged the government to explain the reason for placing Mr Butler’s name on the “stop list”. “Is it because the CPJ raises its voice against unannounced censorship in Pakistan,” he wondered.

Mr Butt said the CPJ representative could have been informed in advance that there was a bar on his entry, calling for action against those responsible if it was found that Mr Butler’s deportation was unjustified.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2019