Pakistan arrests a media owner over 30-year-old allegations, journalists cry foul

A man reads a newspaper at a market in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan 14, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (NYTIMES) - Officials on Thursday (March 12) arrested the owner of the country's largest media group on three-decade-old allegations involving a land deal, a case widely criticised by journalist groups as an attempt to muzzle independent news reporting.

The owner, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, is one of Pakistan's most influential media figures, and his company, the Jang Media Group, has run afoul of successive governments. But the current Prime Minister, Mr Imran Khan, has shown particular impatience with its coverage.

"This arrest over a 34-year-old land deal makes a mockery of Pakistan's claim to be a democracy that upholds freedom of the press," said Mr Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of several groups to denounce the arrest.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group, called the case "another attempt to gag a beleaguered independent press".

Officials with the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog, allege that Rehman illegally leased land from the government of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1986 and had ownership transferred to him in 2016, when Sharif again headed the government.

Rehman, who is expected to appear in court on Friday, has denied the allegations and said the property was obtained from a private party.

Opposition politicians have accused the anti-corruption bureau of working at the behest of Mr Khan's government, bringing several politicised cases against rivals even as inquiries against federal ministers and allies have been put on the back burner.

The bureau, which is intended to be an independent body, has denied charges of politicisation.

Pakistan has long been considered one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. Journalists for years have described an atmosphere of pressure and intimidation by the country's powerful military and successive governments.

But Rehman's media group said that the authorities recently stepped up pressure on its reporters, producers and editors, and had threatened to use the country's media regulator to shut down its television channels.

They note that the Khan government has halted official advertisements in Jang Media and in Dawn, the country's leading English daily, choking off a lucrative flow of revenue and straining the companies' finances.

Other media groups in the country have also been affected by the pulling of government advertisements, leading to lay-offs.

Mr Khan has been particularly rankled by Jang's coverage of the 2018 election, which elevated him to power, and has accused the media company of being an ally of Sharif, who was removed from power by the Supreme Court after corruption-related investigations.

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