Pakistan sends back leader of global journalists’ group
New Delhi: On the night of 16 October, Pakistani immigration authorities at Lahore airport reportedly denied entry to Steven Butler, the Asia Program Coordinator of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as his name was on a “stop list” of the country’s interior ministry.
According to a press statement issued by the independent non-profit organisation, Butler was stopped by a border officer at the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore who told him “his journalist visa was valid, but it was voided because his name was on a stop list of the Interior Ministry”.
Butler was travelling to Pakistan to participate in the Asma Jahangir Conference-Roadmap for Human Rights, the CPJ said.
Airport authorities confiscated his passport and ushered him onto a flight bound for Doha in Qatar and then put in on a direct flight back to Washington, D.C, the statement said.
“Butler, who communicated with CPJ while on the flight, said he was in ‘a kind of restricted custody’ and that the flight crew was in possession of his passport and boarding pass,” read the statement.
Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, termed the events as “a slap in the face to those concerned about press freedom in the country”.
Simon described Pakistani authorities’ move to block Butler from entering the country as “baffling,” and asserted that “Pakistani authorities should give a full explanation of their decision to bar Butler from entering and correct this error.
“If the government is interested in demonstrating its commitment to a free press, it should conduct a swift and transparent investigation into this case,” he added.
The Pakistani government is yet to comment on the matter.
The conference that Butler was set to attend was named after Pakistan’s well-respected human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir, who died of a heart-attack last year. She was posthumously awarded the 2018 UN Human Rights Prize, and was known for taking a public stand against dictatorship during General Zia-ul Haq reign in 1983, for which she was also imprisoned.
She remained a fierce supporter of peace between India and Pakistan during the course of her life.
As the stranglehold of Pakistan’s judiciary and military increases over state institutions, the country’s free press has been systematically silenced through intimidation and coercion.
Last year, when Pakistan’s largest television network, Geo TV, was forced off air in over 80 per cent of the country, Steven Butler had come out with a statement criticising what he called the “arbitrary suspension of Geo TV on cable”.
“(It) is a direct assault on Pakistan’s constitutionally guaranteed right to access information,” Butler had said.
According to a report in the New York Times, the TV channel had found itself on the wrong side of the Pakistani military after its particularly critical coverage of Islamabad being added to the Financial Action Task Force’s terror financing watch list.
The blackout of Geo TV was also left out of prime time coverage by other networks.
In the past, websites and radio shows have also been taken down, and a series of scattered missing persons reports and unsolved abductions over the years have instilled a suspicion among critics of the state that Pakistan will not tolerate dissent at any cost.
The military, however, has previously denied any hand in press censorship.