Will Zafar Naqvi become next victim of journalist witch-hunt? (Opinion)

It was September 6. In Pakistan it is observed as Defence Day in remembrance of the 1965 Indo-Pak war that lasted for 17 days.

However, as numerous former military men and strategic analysts were appearing on television channels competing among each other in praising the men in uniform and their role during the evening broadcast, men in plain clothes were knocking on the door of popular Pakistani YouTube blogger Zafar Naqvi pretending to be from the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR).

Naqvi is an unwavering critic of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s economic policies. His YouTube subscriptions have soared as his sharp criticism of the economic policies of the sitting government continue. Emboldened by his popular support Naqvi decided to delve into matters otherwise considered too sensitive to ponder upon, the Pakistan army.

In a video uploaded on June 20, Naqvi informed his viewers about that a petition refused to be entertained by the Islamabad High Court had now been filed at the Lahore High Court. The petition was filed by a former Major General of the Pakistan army Manzoor Ahmed who challenged the decision approved by military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Ahmed accused the military for unfair dismissal.

Zafar Naqvi is journalist who has previously worked for television Channels Abb-Tak TV, ARY and Bol before he decided to give up his job to launch his YouTube channel in 2020. Since the start Naqvi has shared the anti-military narrative for which the tone was set by Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif.

But don’t get me wrong. Although Naqvi has criticised the role of military generals when it comes to political meddling and corruption but that does not mean that he is against the Pakistan army as an institution. Naqvi supports the role of the Pakistan military as a necessity against any foreign invasion. But that’s not the point. The point is that Pakistani military establishment is tightening the noose of censorship around the neck of any sign of freedom of expression.

Kidnappings, beatings, even murder of journalists are acts that have now become ever so frequent and are understood to act as a warning and compel the fourth state to impose self-censorship upon itself. Only recently at last two such incidents managed to cater international media’s attention. One was the abduction Matiullah Jan (January 2021) the other of blogger Assad Ali Tour (May 2021).

The former was kidnapped while the later beaten and had his bones broken at his residence by the infamous ‘unknown’ attackers, a phrase commonly used in Pakistan to refer to the Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency the ISI, hence the slogan ‘Yeh jo namaloom hain, yeh sub ko maloom hain’ (Everyone Knowns who the unknown are), now a popular slogan raised at anti-government protests and rallies alike.

A draft for the creation of a new media law enforcement agency called Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) has now been approved by the Imran Khan cabinet (August 23) and is expected to be presented to the parliament for approval.

The draft for PMDA is designed in such a manner that the day it is passed and is made into an act by the parliament, it would automatically cancel around 50 percent of the declarations (licences) of the country’s newspapers.

PMDA is to be empowered to impose a fine of up to Rs 250 million for ‘violations’ of the code of conduct by the electronic media. Furthermore any Pakistani You Tuber would be bound to air at least 30 percent Pakistani content.

The proposed PDMA has been rejected by the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, Pakistan Broadcasters Association, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, and by the Electronic Media Editors and News Directors.

On September 6 at 10.25pm when ‘unknown’ men pretending to be FBR officials knocked on the door of Zafar Naqvi he did not open the door and that might just have saved him from falling victim to the ongoing witch hunt against outspoken journalists in Pakistan.

Defence of the right of freedom of expression is the rallying call issued by journalists for September 13 when the President of Pakistan Dr Arif Alvi is expected to address the joint session of the parliament. Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has announced to stage a protest at the gates of the National assembly in Islamabad on that day.

Unity among Pakistan journalists is key to help prevent Zafar Naqvi and his companions from falling victim to the witch hunt against outspoken journalists.

(Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza is an author and a human rights activist from Mirpur in PoJK. He currently lives in exile in the UK. The views expressed are personal)