ISLAMABAD • Pakistani officials have arrested the owner of the country's largest media group over three-decade-old allegations involving a land deal, in a case widely criticised by journalist groups as an attempt to muzzle independent news reporting.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, one of Pakistan's most influential media figures, as well as his company Jang Media Group, have run afoul of successive governments.
But current Prime Minister Imran Khan has shown particular impatience with the media group's coverage.
Mr Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists and among those to denounce the arrest on Thursday, said: "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."
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group, called the case "another attempt to gag a beleaguered independent press".
Officials from 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 then had ownership transferred to his name in 2016, when Mr Sharif again led the government.
Rehman, who was expected to appear in court yesterday, 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, for instance, by 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 expected 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, who 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 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 added that the Khan government has halted official advertisements in Jang Media Group and 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 layoffs.
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 Mr Sharif, who was removed from power by the Supreme Court after corruption-related investigations.