Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic. In July the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most National Assembly seats in the general elections, and in August PTI’s Imran Khan became prime minister. While independent observers noted technical improvements in the Election Commission of Pakistan’s management of the polling process itself, observers, civil society organizations and political parties raised concerns about pre-election interference by military and intelligence agencies that created an uneven electoral playing field. Some political parties also alleged significant polling day irregularities occurred.
The military and intelligence services nominally reported to civilian authorities but essentially operated without effective civilian oversight.
Human rights issues included credible reports of extrajudicial and targeted killings; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; censorship, site-blocking, and arbitrary restrictions on journalists’ freedom of movement; severe harassment and intimidation of and high-profile attacks against journalists and media organizations; government restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including overly restrictive nongovernmental organizations (NGO) laws; restrictions on religious freedom and discrimination against members of religious minority groups; restrictions on freedom of movement; corruption within the government; recruitment and use of child soldiers by nonstate militant groups; lack of criminal investigations or accountability for cases related to rape, sexual harassment, so-called honor crimes, female genital mutilation/cutting, and violence based on gender, gender identity and sexual orientation; legal prohibitions of consensual same-sex sexual conduct; forced and bonded labor and transnational trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor.
There was a lack of government accountability, and abuses often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among the perpetrators, whether official or unofficial. Authorities seldom punished government officials for human rights abuses.
Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups. Nevertheless, violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. As of December 23, terrorism fatalities stood at 686, in comparison with 1,260 total fatalities in 2017, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a database compiled by the public-interest advocacy organization Institute for Conflict Management, which collects statistics on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings in connection with conflicts throughout the country (see section 1.g.).
On January 13, police in Karachi (Sindh) shot and killed a Pashtun man, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in what Karachi police authorities initially claimed was a counterterror operation. According to Mehsud’s family, he had been detained 10 days earlier. Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights–an independent government body charged with investigating alleged human rights abuses–concluded police staged a fake raid in order to carry out Mehsud’s extrajudicial killing. Furthermore, the report linked then-Senior Superintendent of Police for Karachi’s Malir District, Rao Anwar, to the deaths of at least 444 individuals in similar staged police encounters. The Supreme Court ordered Sindh’s Police Inspector General to conduct an immediate inquiry into the killing and Anwar’s role. Authorities removed Anwar from his position. He fled and was eventually arrested. He was subsequently released on bail, and his trial was ongoing as of December 3.
Physical abuse while in official custody allegedly caused the death of some criminal suspects. Lengthy trial delays and failure to discipline and prosecute those responsible for killings contributed to a culture of impunity. In February police officers in Rawalpindi reportedly entered a home without a warrant, detained a resident, and beat him to death while in custody at a police station. The four officers who entered the young man’s home without a warrant were suspended from duty pending an investigation of the incident, but it was unclear as of November whether any further action was taken in the case.
On January 10, police in Kasur (Punjab) reportedly fired live rounds into a crowd that stormed a police station in protest against a series of unsolved rapes and killings of children in the district. Two civilians died and one was wounded in the incident. Police officials claimed protesters shot first at police.
There were numerous reports of fatal attacks against police. On January 9, a vehicle rammed a police checkpoint outside the Balochistan Provincial Assembly, killing five police officers in the resulting explosion. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, saying the police–not the Assembly–were the intended targets. In March, three police officers were killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) targeted a police convoy in Punjab province. On April 24, 10 police officers died in three separate suicide attacks in Balochistan. Hizbul Ahrar, a TTP splinter group, claimed responsibility for all three attacks. In August, two terrorists attacked a police checkpoint in the Gilgit Baltistan region, killing three police officers.
Militants and terrorist groups killed hundreds and injured thousands with bombs, suicide attacks, and other violence (see section 1.g.).
There were kidnappings and forced disappearances of persons in nearly all areas of the country. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances received an increased number of complaints compared with 2017. The commission had received 899 cases as of October 31, while there were a total 868 complaints in 2017. Some officials from intelligence agencies, police, and other security forces reportedly held prisoners incommunicado and refused to disclose their location.
On February 15, in Badin, Sindh, plainclothes security reportedly abducted Rafaqat Ali Jarwar, a senior journalist with Daily Koshish. According to media reports, Jarwar was formerly associated with a Sindhi nationalist group.
On June 6, prominent journalist and opinion writer Gul Bukhari was abducted in Lahore by unidentified assailants. Bukhari was released hours later, after news reports highlighted her disappearance and the case received significant attention on social media. She is known as a prominent critic of the military and security services, and was listed by the military as a social media threat to the state two days before her brief abduction. Bukhari did not identify her captors.
Media reported that in December 2017 civil society activist Raza Khan disappeared after cohosting a small public event in Lahore to discuss the government’s capitulation to the demands of a hardline religious group, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), in the wake of TLP’s weeks-long, highly disruptive protest in Islamabad. Khan reportedly returned home in July.
Human rights organizations reported many Pashtun rights activists, and Sindhi and Baloch nationalists, disappeared or were arrested without cause or warrant. For example, in April the Progressive Youth Alliance alleged that 11 of its members were abducted following a series of Pashtun rights rallies in Karachi. Nationalist parties in Sindh also alleged that law enforcement agencies and security agencies kidnapped and killed Sindhi political activists.
Throughout the first half of the year, Pashtun rights activists used social media to highlight the arrests, enforced disappearances, and other forms of harassment by security agencies against members of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM. Most of those detained were rank-and-file supporters of the group. Unofficial estimates, however, suggest that the military released up to 300 individuals who had been detained without charge–in some cases for several years–in response to PTM’s protest campaign against enforced disappearances. Observers believed authorities released detainees in response to activist demands, but it gave rise to further allegations that authorities had mistreated those in custody, and fueled calls for an end to enforced disappearances and for a more transparent legal process to formally charge or release those still in detention.
The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, headed by Supreme Court justice Javed Iqbal and retired law enforcement official Muhammad Sharif Virk, received 5,507 missing persons cases between 2011 and October 31. The commission had closed 3,633 of those inquiries, while 1,874 remained open.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but there were constitutional restrictions. In addition, threats, harassment, violence and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for the right to free speech and the press, subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” or the “integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” The law permits citizens to criticize the government publicly or privately, but court decisions have interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism can result in legal, political, or commercial reprisal. Blasphemy laws restrict individual rights to free speech concerning matters of religion and religious doctrine. According to the penal code, the punishment for blasphemy ranges from life in prison to the death sentence for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, although no one has been executed for committing blasphemy to date, allegations of blasphemy have often prompted mob lynchings and vigilantism. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Journalists often criticized the government, but threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive issues such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces occurred during the year. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. Authorities sometimes used these laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the judiciary and armed forces. Press outlets began reporting increased censorship and pressure to self-censor prior to national elections in July; such pressure continued after the elections.
There were more than 400 independent English, Urdu, and regional-language daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. To publish within AK, media owners had to obtain permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting controlled and managed the country’s primary wire service, the Associated Press of Pakistan, the official carrier of government and international news to the local media. The military had its own media and public relations office, Inter-Services Public Relations. The government-owned Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation and Pakistan Television Corporation broadcast television programs nationwide and operated radio stations throughout the country. In the former FATA and PATA, authorities allowed independent radio stations to broadcast with the FATA Secretariat’s permission. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) licensed 89 private domestic and 22 foreign television channels. There were 143 commercial FM radio stations, but their licenses prohibited news programming. Some channels evaded this restriction by discussing news in talk-show formats.
International media broadcasts were normally available. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content, however. In 2016 PEMRA imposed a blanket ban on transmission of Indian media content. The Lahore High Court officially ended the ban in February 2017, but blockage of Indian television dramas continued until the Lahore High Court again ruled against the policy in July 2017. PEMRA again imposed a temporary ban on the screening of Indian films during the Eid holidays to encourage viewing of local films, and in October the Supreme Court overturned the Lahore High Court’s earlier decisions, reinstating a blanket ban. The Supreme Court chief justice implied the media blockage was a justifiable response to India damming rivers that flow into Pakistan.
PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations during the year and authorized its chairman to shut down any channel found in violation of the PEMRA code of conduct, primarily with regard to prohibiting telecasts of protests that might instigate violence. On August 29, following a Supreme Court order, PEMRA issued a notice banning the broadcast of commentary surrounding any court case prior to a court decision.
In January the Interior Ministry shut down the Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe. The Ministry based its decision on an intelligence report claiming Radio Mashaal radio programs were “against the interests of Pakistan and in line with a hostile intelligence agency’s agenda.”
Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to violence and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics the authorities view as sensitive were often the targets of retribution. Additionally, journalists working in remote and conflict-ridden areas lacked basic digital and traditional security skills, which increased pressure to self-censor or not cover a story.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), state and nonstate actors physically attacked, harassed, intimidated, and kidnapped journalists and subjected them to other forms of pressure. CPJ did not confirm any targeted killings of journalists during the year, but was investigating the motives of suspected targeted killings. CPJ included the country in its annual “impunity index” because of the poor record of prosecuting the killers of journalists.
Journalists were killed during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings.
On August 22, two men attacked journalist Muhammed Abid Hussain in Punjab’s Vehari district, reportedly in response to exposing his attackers’ criminal activity. Abid died of his injuries on August 23.
On October 16, Sohail Khan, a reporter for the Urdu daily K2 Times, was shot while driving in Haripur (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Police apprehended two suspects and indicated the killing may have been related to Khan’s reporting on the suspects’ drug trafficking activities.
In other instances, journalists were beaten, arrested, or disrupted while carrying out their work. On July 13, Punjab province police arrested and beat Kadafi Zaman, a reporter for a Norwegian television station, while he was covering a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) political rally in Gujrat city. Authorities arrested him along with 38 other individuals, charged him with attempted murder and disruption of public order, and released him on bail after several days in jail.
On November 8, armed plainclothes security officers forcibly entered the Karachi Press Club, disrupting an event and taking photos of the interior of the building. The next day, security forces arrested journalist and Press Club member Nasrullah Chaudhry and charged him with assisting a terrorist operative, claiming the earlier Press Club raid was part of the search for Chaudhry. Journalists widely decried the raid as intimidation, noting that even during military dictatorships, press clubs were considered off-limits for security forces.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally reported that they engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news about the military. Journalists reported regular denial of official permission to visit conflict areas, or being required to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles that were slanted toward the military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts rather than deeper analysis, which journalists generally regarded as risky. Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials, particularly before the national elections in July. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they could be reprinted, but there were no reports of books being banned during the year. Imported movies, books, magazines, and newspapers were subject to censorship for objectionable sexual or religious content. Obscene literature, a category the government defined broadly, was subject to seizure.
The government fined private television channels for alleged violations of the “code of ethics” and for showing banned content on-screen. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by either suspending licenses or threatening to do so, and many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security issues. The Central Board of Film Censors previewed and censored sexual content and any content that glorified Indian heroes, leaders, or military figures in foreign and domestic films.
Before the July national elections, media outlets seen as supportive of the PML-N faced distribution disruptions. The country’s oldest newspaper, English-language daily Dawn, published a controversial interview with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on May 12. Beginning on May 15, Dawn reported bans on its distribution in much of Balochistan province, many cities in Sindh province, and in all military-administered areas. The Jang/Geo media group also reportedly faced harassment and newspaper distribution blockages. Unidentified individuals reportedly pressured newspaper vendors not to distribute the Urdu language Jang newspaper and its sister English language paper The News, and discouraged advertisers from advertising with the Jang/Geo group’s outlets. In many parts of the country, cable operators dropped the Geo news channel from their cable systems, or repeatedly changed its assigned channel.
National Security: Some journalists asserted authorities cited laws protecting national security to censor and restrict media distribution of material that criticized government policies, or military or public officials. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area that was part of a military operation in progress.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased since 2013, but there is a history of militant and criminal elements killing, abducting, assaulting, and intimidating journalists and their families.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels. According to the PTA, as of August there were approximately 58 million broadband subscribers, representing approximately 27.8 percent internet penetration.
Since 2012 the government has implemented a systematic, nationwide content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unacceptable” content, including material that is deemed un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society. The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The Ministry for Religious Affairs coordinates with the PTA in identifying purportedly blasphemous websites to be blocked. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block sites that advocated for Baloch independence. There were reports that the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and the government often used vague criteria without due process.
On June 4, the Director General of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) revealed security services had been actively monitoring “antistate” social media accounts both domestically and internationally. During the presentation, ISPR presented a chart showing the profiles and twitter handles of journalists and bloggers considered threats to the state. In November, two prominent journalists and social media activists, Gul Bukhari and Taha Siddiqui, simultaneously received notices from Twitter warning them against publishing “objectionable content.” Both publicly blamed the government for instigating these official warnings in an attempt to censor their critical tweets. There were abduction attempts against both during the year. On August 18, the PTA publicly threatened to ban Twitter for failing to block “objectionable content” in response to requests from the government.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom but screened and censored cultural events. There was government interference with art exhibitions, musical, and cultural activities. Holding any such event requires a government-issued permit (a “no objection certificate”).
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices. Corruption was pervasive in politics and government, and various politicians and public office holders faced allegations of corruption, including bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement.
Corruption: The National Accountability Bureau serves as the highest-level anticorruption authority, with a mandate to eliminate corruption through awareness, prevention, and enforcement. The National Accountability Bureau and other investigative agencies, including the Federal Board of Revenue, the State Bank of Pakistan, and the Federal Investigation Agency, conduct investigations into corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering.
Corruption within the lower levels of the police force was common. Some police charged fees to register genuine complaints and accepted bribes for registering false complaints. Bribes to avoid charges were commonplace.
Reports of corruption in the judicial system persisted, including reports that court staff requested payments to facilitate administrative procedures. Lower courts reportedly remained corrupt, inefficient, and subject to pressure from higher-ranking judges as well as prominent, wealthy, religious and political figures.
There is a pervasive perception in society that corruption exists at all levels of government. The Supreme Court and the National Accountability Bureau initiated, reopened, or continued investigations into multiple prominent politicians throughout the year, including former prime minister Sharif and his politically active daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shehbaz Sharif (who replaced Nawaz Sharif as head of the PML-N party), and former PML-N finance minister and Sharif confidante Ishaq Dar. In many of the cases, there appeared to be evidence of corruption. Media and analysts, however, questioned the seemingly selective nature of the prosecutions (which, they assessed, disproportionately targeted a single party), and the timing of arrests that occurred days before elections.
In November 2016 the Supreme Court convened a special bench to investigate allegations of corruption levelled against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and members of his family. The charges stemmed from allegations related to the 2016 “Panama Papers” leaks, which named Pakistanis holding off-shore bank accounts. In July 2017 the Supreme Court disqualified then prime minister Sharif from his National Assembly seat, prompting his resignation. The court also ordered the National Accountability Bureau to prosecute the prime minister, members of his family, and the sitting finance minister. The trials before a national accountability court began in September 2017 and continued at year’s end.
Financial Disclosure: By law, members of Parliament, civil servants, and ministers must declare their assets. Elected officials must also disclose their spouses’ and dependent children’s assets. Failure to disclose this information may lead to their disqualification from public office for five years. Heads of state, in contrast, are not required to declare their income and assets. The assets of judges, generals, and high-level officials were often concealed from the public.
Political parties and politicians must file annual financial accounting reports declaring their assets and liabilities. The law was not fully implemented, and lawmakers often disregarded it. It is the duty of the Election Commission of Pakistan to verify that political parties and politicians make their financial information publicly available; the commission posts a list of parliamentarians’ assets annually.
Under the efficiency and disciplinary rules, an official must face an inquiry if accused of corruption or financial irregularities. A person convicted of corruption faces a prison term of up to 14 years, a fine, or both, and the government may appropriate any assets obtained by corrupt means.