Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic. In 2018 the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the most National Assembly seats in the general elections, and the party’s leader, 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 regarding preelection interference by military and intelligence agencies that created an uneven electoral playing field. Some political parties also alleged significant polling day irregularities.
Police have primary domestic security responsibility for most of the country. Local police are under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. Paramilitary organizations, including the Frontier Corps that operates in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and includes the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as the Rangers that operate in Sindh and Punjab, provide security services under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. The Frontier Corps’s primary mission is security of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the corps reports to the Ministry of Interior in peacetime and the army in times of conflict. The military is responsible for external security but plays a role in domestic security, including as the lead security agency in many areas of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. While military and intelligence services officially report to civilian authorities, they operate independently and without effective civilian oversight. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses according to domestic and international nongovernmental organizations.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals in another country, including killings, kidnappings, or violence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; support to the Taliban, a nonstate armed militant group that recruited and used child soldiers; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and disappearances of journalists, censorship, and criminal defamation laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom including site blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws for the operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial and ethnic minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; restrictions on workers’ freedom of association; and use of the worst forms of child labor.
There was a lack of government accountability, and abuses, including corruption, often went unpunished, fostering a culture of impunity among perpetrators, whether official or unofficial. Authorities seldom punished government officials for reported human rights abuses or acts of corruption.
Violence, abuse, and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other nonstate actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness. Terrorist violence and human rights abuses by nonstate actors contributed to human rights problems, with terrorist violence exceeding that of the prior year. Terrorist and cross-border militant attacks against civilians, soldiers, and police caused hundreds of casualties. Military, police, and law enforcement agencies continued to carry out significant campaigns against militant and terrorist groups. As of September 30, terrorism fatalities stood at 495, compared with 506 fatalities in all of 2020, 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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, but constitutional restrictions exist. In addition, threats, harassment, abductions, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship. Government failure to investigate and prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
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 interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism may 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 punishments for conviction of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, and although authorities did not execute any person for committing blasphemy, allegations of blasphemy often prompted vigilantism and mob lynching. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
On January 8, an antiterrorism court (ATC) sentenced three men to death for sharing blasphemous content through YouTube videos and fake social media profiles. According to media sources, this was the country’s first case in which the accused were convicted for sharing blasphemous content on social media.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive topics such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces persisted throughout the year. Both the military, through the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. Authorities used recently passed laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and the armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, media owners continued to require permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, and journalists had to depend largely on information provided by the government and military. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. Journalists also protested their inability to report freely on rights violations and forced disappearances in Balochistan, the Pashtun movement’s activities and protests, and the military’s involvement in political affairs and business enterprises. Rights activists reported the government contacted Twitter and asked them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.
Journalists alleged PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations, and media outlets claimed the government pressured stations to halt broadcasting of interviews with selected opposition political party leaders. The Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe, which the Interior Ministry closed in 2018, remained closed at the end of the year and Voice of America’s Pashto and Urdu websites remained blocked.
In January PEMRA suspended privately owned broadcaster BOL News following a program that criticized the appointment of judges to the country’s highest court. The criticism was considered insulting to the judiciary and thus in violation of the constitutional provision that protects the honor of the judiciary. The ban was later suspended by the Supreme Court. On June 28, the Sindh provincial assembly enacted the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Bill 2021. The law protects journalists against unlawful or arbitrary restrictions on their ability to work and requires the provincial government to take steps to protect media persons from harassment, violence, and threats of violence in both physical and online spaces. It also prevents government officials and institutions from forcing journalists to disclose the identity of their professional sources. The law establishes a Commission for the Protection of Journalists and other Media Practitioners.
In July journalist organizations strongly opposed a law passed by the Punjab Assembly that allowed the Assembly to penalize journalists for offenses including misrepresenting a speech made by members before the assembly or publishing a report or debate prohibited or expunged by the speaker of the assembly. The government reportedly later withdrew the clauses related to penalizing journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they had a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities viewed 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 observers, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings.
On March 19, a group of armed men shot and killed Ajay Laalwani, a reporter for Royal News TV in Sukkur, Sindh. On April 24, unknown attackers shot and killed a 23-year-old journalist, Abdul Wahid Raisani, in Quetta, Balochistan. Raisani worked for Balochistan’s largest Urdu daily newspaper, Azadi. Journalists also said they were subject to violent reprisals for reporting on cases of gender-based violence. On May 25, unidentified men attacked journalist Asad Ali Toor at his residence in Islamabad. According to the journalist, the attackers warned him against reporting on the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Toor is a well-known critic of the country’s military and its role in the country’s politics.
On June 7, veteran journalist and member of the Punjab Assembly, Syeda Maimanat Mohsin, was attacked while returning home after addressing a public rally in Okara’s Hujra Shah Muqeem area. Journalists were also subject to enforced disappearances and arrests.
In July prominent journalist and television host Nadeem Malik was summoned by the counterterrorism wing of the FIA concerning his comments involving a high-profile case regarding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
On August 7, the FIA cybercrime wing took into custody two journalists, Amir Mir and Imran Shafqat, allegedly for their public criticism of the military. They were later released on personal bond.
On August 13, armed men attacked and seriously injured a journalist, Ghulam Qadir Shar, in Sanghar, Sindh, allegedly as reprisal for reporting on a community-sanctioned attack on a woman.
Freedom Network, a media freedom advocacy group, reported an overall 40 percent increase in attacks on journalists during the year, with 39 cases from January to April alone in Punjab.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military, religious extremism, and abuse of blasphemy laws. Journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year, and PEMRA issued editorial directives to media outlets. Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or requirements to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles with a military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts, which journalists generally regarded as less risky than analysis.
Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they allowed reprinting. 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. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by suspending licenses or threatening to do so or by reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet without notice so that its programming would be hard or impossible to find on most televisions. Many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security topics. 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.
The government continued to use network access as a tool to exert control over media outlets. Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system, as well as government advertising, which made up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. The economic contraction caused by COVID-19 decreased private revenue further, rendering outlets more dependent on government advertising. A new policy that would allow media outlets to tap into subscription revenues was stalled in a Supreme Court battle. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content. Media houses also reportedly fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat to their revenues or continued ability to operate. In April the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors rejected a PEMRA notification that asked television channels to rely only on press releases and official notifications to report on cabinet meetings. In May, Geo News suspended Hamid Mir, longtime television host and one of the country’s most prominent journalists, following Mir’s public outcry against the country’s military and the intelligence agencies.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. Blasphemy is punishable ranging from a two-year imprisonment to death. On January 8, an antiterrorism court gave death sentences to three persons for social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad under the blasphemy laws.
On March 12, the Lahore High Court agreed to hear a petition seeking the death sentence for a Christian previously jailed for life after being convicted of sending text messages defaming the Prophet Muhammad.
For more on blasphemy laws, please see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/
In Peshawar the Awami National Party chairman filed a civil case accusing a political rival and three newspapers of defamation in 2019. The case remained pending during the year.
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, or that described the country’s security situation in a negative light. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area where a military operation was in progress.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased, but an environment where militant and criminal elements were known to kill, abduct, assault, and intimidate journalists and their families led journalists, particularly in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, to self-censor.
Following the takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban in September, banned terrorist organization TTP issued a warning to journalists and media organizations in Pakistan asking them to refrain from referring to TTP as a “terrorist or extremist” organization. Journalists, particularly those working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, continued to receive threats and expressed concern regarding the government’s inability to arrest those involved in the killing of journalists in these two provinces.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement and for uninhibited foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. On March 1, authorities expelled PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen from Balochistan after he attended a condolence meeting for a killed politician in Chaman District. The Balochistan government had banned Pashteen in December 2020 from entering the province for security reasons.
In-country Movement: Citing security concerns, government restrictions on access to certain areas of the former FATA and Balochistan hindered freedom of movement. The government required an approved NOC for travel to areas of the country it designated “sensitive.”
Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel to Israel, and the country’s passports include a statement that they are “valid for all countries except Israel.”
Passport applicants must list their religious affiliation, and those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Muhammad is the final prophet and denounce the founder of the Ahmadi movement as a false prophet. Ahmadi representatives reported authorities wrote the word “Ahmadi” in their passports if they refused to sign the declaration.
According to policy, government employees and students must obtain NOCs from the government before traveling abroad. Authorities rarely enforced this requirement for students, however.
The government prohibited persons on an exit control list from departing the country. The stated purpose of the list was to prevent departure from the country of “persons involved in antistate activities, terrorism, or related to proscribed organizations and those placed on the orders of superior courts,” but according to civil society, authorities also included human rights defenders and critics of the government and military on the list. Those on the list have the right to appeal to the courts to have their names removed.
Exile: The government refused to accept the return of some citizens deported to Pakistan from other countries. The government refused these deportees entry to the country as “unverified” Pakistani citizens, alleging some passports issued by Pakistani embassies and consulates abroad were fraudulent.
Large population displacements have occurred since 2008 because of militant activity and military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former FATA. Returns continued amid improved security conditions. The government and UN agencies such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and UN World Food Program collaborated to assist and protect those affected by conflict, who generally resided with host families, in rented accommodations, or to a lesser extent, in camps. Several internally displaced persons (IDP) populations settled in informal settlements outside of cities such as Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi.
The government required humanitarian organizations assisting civilians displaced by military operations to request NOCs to access all districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former FATA. According to humanitarian organizations and NGOs, the certificate application process was cumbersome, and projects faced significant delays. The government maintained IDP camps inside and near former FATA districts where military operations took place, despite access and security concerns raised by humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization workers aiding in the camps faced danger when travelling to and within the former FATA. UN agencies maintained access to the camps and the affected areas mainly through local NGOs.
There were no reports of involuntary returns. Many IDPs reportedly wanted to return home, despite the lack of local infrastructure, housing, and available service delivery and the strict control that security forces maintained over returnees’ movements through extensive checkpoints. Other IDP families delayed their return or chose to stay with family members and remain in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where regular access to health care, education, and other social services was available. For IDPs who were unwilling or unable to return, the government coordinated support with the United Nations and other international organizations.
Despite large-scale recurring displacements of individuals due to natural disasters and disruptions caused by terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations, the government had not adopted specific legislation to tackle internal displacement problems. In addition, the law does not provide any definition of IDPs or their rights.
The country is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol) and has not enacted national legislation for the protection of refugees or established procedures to determine the refugee status of persons who are seeking international protection within its territory. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to more than 1.4 million refugees (all of whom arrived in the country prior to 2007), asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status and the government has not established a system for providing protection for refugees. The law also does not exclude asylum seekers and refugees from provisions regarding illegal entry and stay. In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR issued asylum seeker certificates and conducted refugee status determination under its mandate, and the country generally accepted UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status. The country generally allowed asylum seekers, as well as recognized refugees, to remain in the country pending identification of a durable solution.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: The government provided temporary legal status to more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees who arrived prior to 2007 by issuing proof of registration (POR) cards that expired on December 31, 2015. Since then, POR cards were renewed intermittently through cabinet decisions but expired without further renewal on June 30, 2020. The country also hosted approximately 878,000 Afghans with Afghan Citizen Cards but did not grant them refugee status. The government typically extended the validity of the Afghan Citizen Cards in short increments but allowed these cards to expire on June 30, 2020, and the government has not since renewed the cards. The government issued a notice in June 2020 directing agencies and departments to ensure that no harassment or adverse action be taken against POR and Afghan Citizen Card holders until the federal cabinet made a formal decision.
In March in collaboration with UNHCR, the government started the Document Renewal and Information Verification Exercise to update information on, and provide biometric cards with June 30, 2023, validity, to registered Afghan refugees and their immediate family members in Pakistan.
UNHCR reported 374 arrests and detentions of refugees by security authorities from January to June, a 38 percent increase from the same period in 2020, when 271 refugees were detained. This increase may be attributed to lockdown measures enforced by the government due to COVID-19. Among this year’s arrests, 81 percent of refugees detained were released without formal charges, 8 percent were charged and detained under the Foreigners Act, and 11 percent were charged with violating administrative orders regarding COVID-19, maintaining law and order, preventing vagrancy, and preventing imminent criminal activities.
Media and civil society reported police in Peshawar arrested 194 Afghan nationals (including POR cardholders, Afghan Citizen Card holders, visa or passport holders, and undocumented Afghans) on Afghanistan’s independence day in August. Media reported Pakistan began deportation proceedings and charged members of the group with rioting, damaging public property, and publicly displaying anti-Pakistan sentiments. Media also reported in September that Pakistan deported more than 200 Afghan nationals, including women and children, who reached Quetta via the Chaman border crossing. Another media report said 750 individuals who entered Balochistan from Afghanistan “illegally” had been taken into custody and deported to Afghanistan as of September 16.
Employment: There is no formal document allowing refugees to work legally, but there is no law prohibiting refugees from working in the country. Many refugees worked as day laborers or in the informal economy, and local employers often exploited refugees in the informal labor market with low or unpaid wages. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, accepting underpaid and undesirable work.
Access to Basic Services: Thirty percent of registered Afghan refugees lived in one of 52 refugee camps or villages, while the remaining 70 percent lived in host communities in rural and urban areas and sought to access basic services in those communities. Afghan refugees could avail themselves of the services of police and the courts, but some, particularly the poor, were afraid to do so. There were no reports of refugees denied access to health facilities because of their nationality. In 2019 the government permitted Afghan refugees to open bank accounts using their POR cards. According to UNHCR, POR cardholders can obtain SIM cards for mobile phones under the law, although some encountered difficulties due to the 2015 expiration date printed on POR cards. The new POR cards with a 2023 expiration date streamlined the process of getting SIM cards for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of five and 16, regardless of their nationality. Any POR cardholder refugee child could be, in theory, admitted to public education facilities after filing the proper paperwork. For older students, particularly girls in refugee villages, access to education remained difficult. In 2020, out of the 417,000 school-aged children, only 83,839 (20 percent) were enrolled in school, of which one-third were in public schools. These enrollment levels translated into a literacy rate for Afghan refugees of 33 percent, with a 7.6 percent rate for girls, and dropout rates as high as 90 percent. Afghan refugees were able to use POR cards to enroll in universities, although there were reports that some universities refused to enroll POR cardholders following the card expiration in June 2020. Afghan students were eligible to seek admission to Pakistani public and private colleges and universities.
Statelessness continued to be a problem. There is no national legislation on statelessness, and the government does not recognize the existence of stateless persons. International and national organizations estimated there were at least hundreds of thousands of stateless persons because of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the 1971 partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh. UNHCR estimated there were sizable populations of ethnic Bihari, Bengali, and Rohingya living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless, although comprehensive data did not exist.