WHEN it comes to press freedom, the arrest of journalist Shahid Aslam highlights the weaknesses in our democracy and the state’s failure to do the right thing. Mr Aslam was arrested by the FIA after the publication of an online story about retired army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s taxes and wealth statements last November. According to the article, Gen Bajwa’s family amassed billions of rupees in the last six years. It is alleged that Mr Aslam, who has been sent to jail on judicial remand, contributed to the story by leaking data, but the journalist who wrote the story later said Mr Aslam had no connection to it. Mr Aslam’s lawyer, too, has told the court that the journalist committed no illegality. Yet he is being hounded.
Mr Aslam’s arrest is part of an age-old pattern: the state cracks down on negative coverage of powerful quarters by arresting media personnel it holds responsible. All too often, journalists have been dragged to court, threatened and intimidated for publishing stories that have raised questions about military officers. This case again proves that the state prefers to shoot the messenger rather than open an inquiry about the message. Mr Aslam’s arrest, the demands for his passwords and access to his phone and laptop violate the protections guaranteed to journalists by law. If the state is so concerned it should have focused on how the details were ‘leaked’ at the government’s end, if indeed, it was an illegal action. But more important is the necessity of an investigation by the FBR and other relevant bodies of how the alleged vast amount was accumulated in the first place. Unfortunately, successive governments, even if elected democratically, have been only too happy to facilitate the persecution of journalists at the behest of a higher authority. To prove that Pakistan is not a democracy in name only, the state must release Mr Aslam and refrain from such knee-jerk reactions.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2023