Project Peca III: What goes around, comes around

While political parties will always be engaged in a Game of Thrones, the collateral are journalists, academics and citizens, who never have been nor ever will be in positions of power.
Published December 16, 2022

The year 2020 began on the heels of sedition cases against the Student Solidarity March organisers in December 2019 and PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen’s arrest in January, followed by the arrests of MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir as well as those of several AWP leaders. Backlash against the Aurat March also intensified during this time, with smear campaigns on social media and the registration of cases against its organisers.

This piece is an attempt to place on record some of the more prominent, and often bizarre, cases filed over the last three years under Peca, whose very purpose was to harass and intimidate journalists, politicians and even ordinary citizens in some cases.

In September 2020, Nawaz Sharif addressed the All Parties Conference via Zoom. Soon after, an FIR was registered against him as well as several other PML-N leaders for “conspiring against the country and state institutions.” Among other sections of the law was a charge under Section 10 of Peca.

The year 2020 also saw the introduction of the social media rules by the PTI government, under the garb of curbing “fake news”. In 2021, the PTI government introduced an ordinance, widening the scope of Peca’s Section 20 by making it a cognizable and non-bailable offence, and amending the language so that it covered public officials and institutions. This was defended by then PM Imran Khan as being necessary to control “obscene” content.

In August 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s Digital Media Wing released the ‘Anti-State Trends: Deep Analytic Report’, accusing several journalists and citizens of running ‘anti-Pakistan’ trends on social media.

Likely due to criticism of the FIA’s actions and checks by courts regarding the use of Section 20, we saw a slight modification in the use of Peca and this time, it was used in a roundabout manner. An FIR was registered against Karachi-based journalist Bilal Farooqi, who was charged ​​under sections 500 and 505 of the PPC along with sections 11 and 20 of Peca. Next came the FIR against Absar Alam, then Asad Ali Toor and Ihtesham Afghan.

Afghan, a PTM activist, only discovered there was an FIR against him through a news report. Oddly, the contents of the FIR against him were uncannily similar to the FIR registered against Toor. Both contained sections 499 and 505 of PPC and sections 11, 20 and 37 of Peca. This time, the FIRs were registered by the police and not the FIA. Peca charges followed the PPC sections, instead of the other way around, unlike in previous instances.

On September 19, 2020, an FIR was registered against former Pemra chief Absar Alam under sections 124A, 133, 499 and 505 of the PPC. Section 20 of Peca was also invoked in the FIR.

Though filed in August 2020, it was on July 1, 2021, that activist Gul Bukhari discovered her name in an interim challan submitted by the FIA to a district court in Islamabad. Her name was mentioned in a list, along with 19 others, in a complaint registered by Lt General retd Naveed Zaman, then the Nust rector. In his complaint, he alleged that those named in the application had tarnished his image by levelling “allegations of financial misappropriation,” and that what the “malicious campaign” had actually done was “undermine the armed forces” and “create a civil and military divide.”

The case was registered under Section 20 of Peca with Section 174 of the PPC invoked in the interim challan on the grounds that despite being summoned through attendance notices, eight suspects from the list had not joined the inquiry. Except, according to Bukhari, not once did she receive a summon — by post or electronically. Bukhari’s name was included in the complaint on the basis of an October 2017 tweet, part of a “smear campaign,” according to the complainant, which resurfaced every few months.

In addition to FIRs, vague summons were a constant source of harassment during this wave.

In August 2020, journalist Imad Zafar tweeted that he had received a phone call from the FIA to appear at its office in connection with a complaint filed against him by General (retd) Shoaib Amjad.

On September 30, 2020, Arshad Sulehri was summoned by the FIA to appear at their Islamabad office. On October 7, 2020, Amir Mir of Googly News — a channel on YouTube — tweeted a summon he had received, ordering his attendance at the FIA office, purportedly, in relation to a video deemed ‘anti-state’.

On October 24, 2020, Mian Dawood, a Lahore-based lawyer and court reporter, tweeted a ‘notice of attendance u/s 160’ he received from the FIA, requiring him to present himself before the authority.

In the case of Umair Solangi, Executive Editor of, he tweeted that he was illegally detained by the FIA who picked him up at 9pm on October 21, 2020, releasing him the next day in the early hours at around 4am. On June 18, 2021, journalist Bilal Ghouri tweeted that he had been summoned by the FIA “in an ambiguous case.” In May 2021, Asad Ali Toor was summoned once again by the FIA.

Arshad Sulehri received the summon on October 1, 2020, following which, he wrote to the FIA asking for a copy of the complaint and details of the inquiry. In response, he received a call threatening him with arrest and detention.

On October 7, 2020, Sulehri’s wife called him to inform that FIA officials were standing outside their house to arrest him. Fortunately, Sulehri was with his lawyers at the time to discuss his case and had already filed a petition before the IHC, seeking protection from harassment and a copy of the complaint against him.

When the IO was asked to explain why he conducted a raid, he told the court that he had merely visited the petitioner’s house to verify the address. The court found this explanation to be unsatisfactory. The IO also failed to satisfy the court with respect to the purpose of summoning Sulehri. Noting that there has been a surge in the number of petitions being filed in which similar grievances were being raised, the IHC’s order dated November 3, 2020, instructed the FIA DG to formulate guidelines for investigation officers.

The order seems to have fallen ears, with the FIA carrying on undeterred.

In March 2021, Absar Alam was summoned to the FIA office. The notice was undated and contained no details about the enquiry. Alam filed a petition before the IHC, challenging the summon issued to him in connection with a complaint filed by a lawyer who contended that Alam’s tweets were “anti-state.” The IHC suspended the notice issued to Alam, who agreed to join the investigation, provided that the FIA shared details of what the inquiry pertained to as well as a copy of the complaint.

Despite the court’s order in Arshad Sulehri’s case to “use process of law and frame guidelines in the matters relating to summoning of witnesses,” also cited in Absar Alam’s case, the FIA issued two undated summons to Asad Ali Toor in a fresh inquiry initiated against him. Both summons were sent to him via Whatsapp and not mailed, as is the proper procedure. Toor filed a petition before the IHC, challenging the manner in which the summons were issued and the FIA’s harassing behaviour.

While the case was pending, on May 25, 2021, Toor was attacked in his home and sustained multiple injuries. A fresh complaint was lodged against Toor upon the complaint of a citizen claiming injury after watching Toor’s video about the attack on him, in which he “levelled allegations against state institutions.” The summon in a third investigation against Toor, based on the complaint of a third party alleging that his vlogs and tweets were against “government institution”, were also challenged before the court. While the FIA did not officially send Toor a summon, several random numbers sent Toor pictures of a summon, as was disclosed by his counsel through a video on Twitter. The FIA was once again instructed to follow proper procedure by the IHC; the summons were suspended and the case adjourned until June 30, 2021.

On June 30, 2021, the IHC while disposing of the case, noted that since one of the cases was filed by a natural person alleging damage to her reputation — unlike other instances where third parties complained of defamation of state institutions — the FIA was allowed to proceed with the investigation. However, despite the court’s instructions, proper notice was not issued to Toor.

Though reminded to follow procedure, on June 18, 2021, journalist Bilal Ghouri tweeted that he had been summoned by the FIA “in an ambiguous case.” This summon was sent to him via Whatsapp. A copy of the summon tweeted by him contained the same vague language as others before it, stating it had to do with “defamation and harassment,” and that he was “well aware of the facts/circumstances of the subject matter.”

Once again, no copy of the complaint was provided with the summon. Ghouri wrote back to the FIA, seeking a copy of the complaint and bringing to their attention the IHC’s orders in the Arshad Sulehri case. Instead of providing a copy of the complaint, as has been the practice, a second summon was issued, again via Whatsapp. Ghouri then approached the IHC to have the notice suspended and to seek directions for the FIA to refrain from harassing him. The court, suspending the notice, inquired why the FIA had failed to follow its November 2020 orders, and summoned the FIA DG at the next date of hearing.

Nadeem Malik, host of Nadeem Malik live on Samaa News received a summon from the FIA’s counter terrorism wing, asking him to appear at the FIA office on July 6, 2021, and bring relevant information with him. This was in connection to his show that aired in April 2021, during which he had disclosed details regarding Judge Arshad Malik’s case.

As disclosed by Malik on his show, the then interior minister informed him that he did know of any such notice. After widespread condemnation of this practice of harassment through notices and in this case, compelling a journalist to reveal his sources which is protected information, then adviser to the PM Shahzad Akbar appeared on a news programme to state that Malik was not accused of anything, but rather asked to appear and assist in an ongoing investigation and share information.

In August 2021, journalists Amir Mir and Imran Shafqat were taken into custody by the FIA. They were charged under sections 11, 13, 20 and 24 of Peca and sections 469, 500, 505 and 509 of the PPC. Both journalists were released on bail while the investigation remains ongoing.

In February 2022, media personality Mohsin Baig was arrested and charged under sections 20, 21 and 24 of Peca. In Baig’s case, the complaint was made by PTI’s Murad Saeed — at the time a federal minister. While in this instance, procedurally the complainant was a natural person and not the state, the remarks in question were made on television originally. A sessions court declared the raid to be illegal, while the IHC questioned the violation of procedure. The cases against Baig, Alam and Ghouri were later dismissed by the IHC.

An overview of all these cases shows a pattern of abuse of the legal system. More importantly, they show that genuine grievances of ordinary citizens are not a priority for the FIA. For those, a lack of adequate resources is cited, but there is no dearth of resources nor time lost constructing mala fide cases against citizens that eat into public time and money. Procedures are violated, the state becomes a party even when it cannot legally, and process becomes punishment.

The more things change…

In April 2022, Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister after the vote-of-no-confidence. Overnight, dissent, democracy and rule of law assumed new meanings for the party and its supporters. The once “on the same page” PTI fell out with the military leadership.

First came the raid on the PTI’s social media wing head, Dr Arsalan Khalid, in April 2022. This was followed by Shahbaz Gill’s arrest in August 2021, when he was charged with sedition for remarks he made on TV about the armed forces.

Also in April, now deceased anchorperson Arshad Sharif’s lawyer approached the IHC on his behalf to seek relief against the harassment of his client, with whom he was unable to establish contact and therefore had reasonable grounds to believe was detained by the FIA.

The FIA denounced this as “fake news” and “propaganda”, claiming it did not harass or arrest Sharif. The Minister for Information and Broadcasting also termed it “propaganda against the government.” The IHC summoned FIA officials and restrained them from harassing Sharif.

In May 2022, anchorperson Sami Ibrahim tweeted a copy of the summon he received, sent by the FIA about a pending investigation under sections 20 of Peca and 505 of the PPC. Soon after, an FIR was registered against him under sections 499, 500 and 131 for “obnoxious words against the judiciary and the armed forces.” He obtained protective bail from the IHC with directions to approach the court with jurisdiction.

Several other pro-PTI journalists, its supporters and leaders were charged under various laws as the party upped the ante against both the military and the newly-formed PDM government. Thus continued the saga of Peca’s use against the PTI’s leaders and supporters who had suddenly found themselves out of favour, culminating in the FIR against Swati, which was registered on October 13, 2022, upon the complaint of a technical assistant from the FIA’s cybercrime reporting circle. He was charged under Section 20 of Peca along with Sections 131, 500, 501, 505 and 109 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for a tweet about the chief of army staff.

Swati’s house was raided and he was arrested by FIA officials. His lawyers informed the court that he had been subjected to custodial torture. However, a medical board examination stated he was in a stable physical and mental condition. Swati was subsequently remanded into FIA custody for two days by the court, following which he was sent on a 14-day judicial remand to Adiala jail.

PTI senators wrote to the Supreme Court’s Human Rights Cell, while the Senate’s standing committee on IT condemned the custodial torture Swati alleged he had been subjected to and called upon the Senate chairman to issue a production order, enabling Swati to attend the ongoing Senate session. The committee also issued directions to the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) to visit him and present a report to it. Subsequently Swati recorded his statement before the SC HR cell.

Swati was granted bail on October 21, 2022, against a surety bond of Rs1 million. During a press conference on October 27, 2022, Swati named two officers, who he said belong to the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and held them responsible for his custodial torture.

Later the same day, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah held a joint press conference with the additional director of the FIA and head of the cybercrime unit, refuting Swati’s allegations. According to them, the raid was conducted in a “lawful” manner with requisite warrants. In another press conference on November 1, 2022, Swati described his ordeal in more detail, also naming a FIA official who, according to Swati, was present when he was arrested, beaten, stripped and filmed.

On November 27, Swati was arrested for a second time for a tweet about the COAS and Major General Faisal Naseer, who he held responsible for his custodial torture. A fresh case under Section 20 of Peca and sections 131, 500, 501, 505 and 109 of the PPC. He was remanded into FIA custody for two days after being produced by a judicial magistrate. Multiple FIRs have been registered against Swati for the same tweet, across the country, including at least five in Balochistan where he was briefly incarcerated, before being shifted to Sindh, from where he has now been taken back to Islamabad and is currently on judicial remand.

Judicial oversight?

Over the years, various attempts have been made to hold the FIA to account. In 2017, a petition was filed before the Sindh High Court, challenging the series of summons issued by the FIA. At the time, the FIA informed the court that only one FIR had been registered and that it proceeded “as per law.”

The bulwark against state overreach became the Islamabad High Court. Vague and undated summons by the FIA issued without procedure were suspended, protective bails granted to the accused and the FIA was directed to act in accordance with the law, prepare and operate as per SOPs. Many of the cases that were challenged before the IHC came to a close after a judgment was issued, striking down the “harm to reputation” portion of Section 20 in Peca as well as the ordinance introduced by the PTI to widen its scope in addition to the FIA’s powers under the law.

In addition to the abuses raised before courts, standing committees on human rights of the upper and lower Houses of Parliament have been approached on numerous occasions. In 2017, Zafarullah Achakzai’s case was taken up by the Senate’s Committee on Information and Broadcasting. In 2019, after the court discharged the case against Shahzeb Jillani, he appeared before the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. The culture of targeted online abuse by ministers and SAPMs as well as the social media wings of political parties was also put on record through statements released by women journalists about the gendered nature of abuse and threats faced by them for doing their jobs. Communications to the UN have also flagged violations.

Whether under the PML-N or the PTI government, the brunt of this crackdown has been borne by journalists, political activists and human rights defenders, who are consistently targeted for their political expression and rights advocacy.

At the time Peca was still a bill, journalists were assured by then IT Minister Anusha Rahman — who brandished Peca as a feather in her cap while slandering all critics who warned of its consequences — that they would not fall under the purview of this law. This false assurance led to weaker resistance to the law from within the media collectively, unlike the kind of opposition witnessed more recently against the ordinance introduced by the PTI to expand the scope of Peca and the FIA’s powers.

Shifting sands

For its part, the PTI, which while in opposition resisted the law and called it “draconian”, was quick to introduce regressive rules and an ordinance further expanding the scope of its criminal provisions.

At the time, those within the electronic media in particular did not view the law as an imminent threat, but rather a necessity to curb non-journalistic practices online, so long as safeguards were inserted. While the PFUJ did join other civil society and industry groups to oppose Peca, digital was just not considered real journalism by most within the fraternity.

Social media was considered an adversary and a conservative approach was adopted towards digital rights. Little did those part of the mainstream realise then how quickly the media landscape in the country would change and how reliant they themselves would become on social media as the primary medium of expression and source of information. Not just journalists and media persons, but political parties too.

The most common accusation against journalists and activists is that they lie about attacks on them to seek asylum.

Self-exile is not voluntary. Established careers and ties are severed. Families are uprooted and displaced. Many have to start over. Even if they continue with their work abroad or express themselves freely, family members back home are harassed. The more they resist, the more the cases against them are escalated. Many are of the view that cases only go away when those on whose orders they are registered, want them to go away. The law becomes irrelevant here.

Meanwhile, the red lines keep shifting. For journalists, the cost of just doing their job comes with all kinds of personal and professional costs. Often, they are cautioned by colleagues and entreaties by family and well wishers to not be so vocal, especially on social media. Those against whom cases have been registered, while supported by many they did not know, also experienced silence and isolation from those they counted on as good friends or thought of as family, simply because association with them was stigmatised to the extent of it being deemed as a security risk and grounds for harassment.

Either journalists are trapped in cases, or the threat of it looms large over them. In some instances, cases and attacks have been preceded by calls from unknown numbers or visits by intelligence officials, to them and their families. Toning down or going silent for a while on social media is commonly offered by way of strategy to avert risk or danger of escalation. Such pressure is also exerted by media organisations where journalists are employed, when they are instructed by the management to avoid expression online. There is constant uncertainty about retaining current jobs or finding employment elsewhere, once they are marked as “anti-state.” They are physically attacked and also subjected to vicious campaigns online without any recourse.

Depending on which side of the divide one is, the crackdown or unlawful action against others has been condemned by few on principle and endorsed by many at the time currying favour. Political parties in particular are quick to claim victimhood when targeted by the same laws, policies and actions, they subject others to.

But the media industry has not been free of this either. Too many journalists and activists have been mocked and ridiculed when attacked; they were accused of “making up” accounts and being responsible for what happened. Mainstream media channels have vilified other journalists and activists as anti-state propagandists and foreign funded agents. But when the same is repeated with them, once out of favour or power, the same entities are quick to claim how it is “different” in their case. There are others who do not vilify but indulge in apologia — “but he/she should not have said this.”

Despite its very recent cries of political victimisation when in opposition, the PDM government is now empowering the FIA’s hand by adding Section 505 — statements conducing to public mischief — to its scheduled offences. This seems like a bid to circumvent the very procedures that were inserted into Peca and checks prescribed by the IHC as abuses were brought to it.

Only recently, the IHC observed how the FIA exceeded its jurisdiction by charging individuals under Section 505 of the PPC for tweets. While Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has said that this will not go through “if it negatively impacts freedom of expression,” the approval has not been withdrawn, just like the social media rules are still under parliamentary review and not denotified. With the PTI out of favour, it is the PML-N’s turn to once again be “on the same page” as announced in a press conference by Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Minister for Broadcasting and Information Mariyum Aurangzeb.

There can be no absolving civilian governments of the role they play in enabling the repression that ultimately catches up with them. The regulations and laws they introduce — or act as vessels to introduce — end up being used as tools against them once out of favour and power.

And while political parties will always be engaged in a Game of Thrones, repressing when in power and playing victim when out of it, the collateral are journalists, academics and citizens, who never have been nor will be in positions of power. They suffer the consequences of speaking truth to power. Political parties castigate them when in power and embrace them as allies when in opposition.

The anti-status quo politics of political parties is short-lived and practiced only when in opposition, readily abandoned when they get their seat at the table and become the status quo themselves. Those who take principled positions irrespective of who is in power at the time, call for public officials and state institutions to remain within their constitutionally prescribed spheres, are the ones who bear consequences at all times.

This article is part three of a three-part series attempting to highlight the abuse of the Peca law against politicians, activists, journalists and citizens in general.

Header illustration: