Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari on Saturday condemned the incidents of "violence and threats" by protesters outside the Dawn offices in Islamabad in recent days.
In a tweet, Mazari said: "Peaceful protest is everyone's right but giving threats to others cannot be acceptable. I disagree often with @dawn_com's line but I strongly condemn violence and threats by protesters outside Dawn's offices."
"Sadly our society can't rid itself of Zia's legacy of intolerance and vitriol," she added.
PML-N stalwart Khwaja Asif also voiced his support for the publication. "In this hour of trial we stand with Dawn," he said, prior to attending a consultative session between party leaders in London.
"Dawn is a newspaper founded by Quaid-i-Azam. Over the last seven decades, they have kept the traditions of our freedom of press and the freedom of expression and [followed] the highest standards of journalism," said Asif.
"Any attempt to curb the freedom of expression in Pakistan is one, unconstitutional, and secondly, it negates the basic fundamentals of the creation of Pakistan," he added.
On Friday, Dawn's Islamabad bureau was besieged by protesters for the second time this week against the publication of a news report regarding the origins of the London Bridge attacker who stabbed two persons to death last week. Nearly 100 people who had arrived in vans gathered outside the newspaper's office and chanted slogans against the media group and set copies of the newspaper on fire. Police arrived at the scene but the protesters dispersed on their own after about 40 minutes.
Following the protests, Dawn Editor Zaffar Abbas tweeted: "Yet another orchestrated demo against Dawn outside its office in Islamabad. Same lot, threatening tone, bigger in number & have blocked entrance. We have informed police & have told them it’s their duty to protect our staff & property. Let’s hope someone from govt will intervene!!"
In a subsequent tweet, he added: "They have just dispersed after burning some copies of Dawn. Everyone has a right to protest as long as they are not violent."
A mob had first staged a demonstration outside Dawn's Islamabad offices on Monday. The charged mob, carrying banners and chanting slogans against the newspaper, had remained outside the office building for nearly three hours, besieging the premises and making the staffers hostage.
A day later, dozens of people staged a protest outside the Karachi Press Club against Dawn and made threats against its staffers. They also threatened to besiege the offices of the media group if "prompt action is not taken against the management and outlets of the organisation".
The siege was condemned by media bodies, journalists, lawmakers and rights groups.
Global media watchdogs — Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) — had called on Pakistani authorities to condemn the besieging of Dawn offices in Islamabad and to prevent demonstrations against the newspaper from turning violent.
"Pakistanis have every right to object to and demonstrate against the Dawn newspaper over its coverage, but threatening violence steps way over the line," said Kathleen Carroll, CPJ’s board chair, in a statement issued on Tuesday. "We call on Pakistani authorities to take all appropriate measures to ensure the safety of Dawn’s staff."
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, also condemned the incident, saying: "This show of force constitutes yet another absolutely unacceptable act of intimidation towards Pakistan’s leading daily."
"The information we have obtained indicates that the federal government was, at the very least, a passive accomplice if not the actual instigator of behaviour that is unacceptable in a democracy," said the RSF statement. "We call on Prime Minister Imran Khan to publicly condemn these excesses, failing which he will be held personally responsible for this alarming press freedom violation."
The statement by RSF also mentioned the tweets by two federal ministers — Fawad Chaudhry and Mazari — who on Sunday had criticised the Dawn report.
The protest outside the newspaper's Islamabad office on Monday was condemned by prime minister's aide Firdous Ashiq Awan two days later, when she was asked about the siege.
"[The government] will discourage such acts," she had said.
PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had also visited the office the day after the protest to express solidarity with the staffers who had remained "under siege".
With additional reporting by Atika Rehman.