After Fact Focus, a Pakistani investigative website was rendered totally or partially inaccessible on 21 November when it reported that the army chief’s family had become extremely rich in recent years, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Pakistan’s civilian authorities to ensure respect for its citizens’ right to journalism that serves the public interest.
“This site can’t be reached.” That’s the message that Pakistanis have repeatedly encountered when trying to access the Fact Focus site, which was completely blocked on 21 November after it posted its “Bajwa Leaks” story about the extraordinary wealth accumulated by Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s family since he became Chief of Army Staff, as the army’s top general is known.
“It is unacceptable in a mature democracy that a perfectly sourced and careful investigative report about an issue of considerable public interest for Pakistanis should be brutally censored in this way,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We call on information and broadcasting minister Marriyum Aurangzeb to ensure that Fact Focus remains fully accessible to Pakistani citizens and is able to continue publishing its reports with complete freedom. The credibility of the civilian government and the rule of law are at stake.”
The Fact Focus site remained completely inaccessible for more that 20 hours on 21 November. After RSF and other civil society representatives reported the ongoing censorship, it finally became partially accessible again.
“More loyal to the king than the king himself”
Fact Focus editors told RSF that the site’s blocking was carried out by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a governmental agency, on the orders of the prime minister and the minister of information and broadcasting.
“This is what we were told by our contacts in these offices,” said a senior editor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is not clear if this was done under pressure from the military or if the government decided to be more loyal to the king than the king himself.”
In this case, the “king” is Gen. Bajwa, whose family has acquired assets worth 12.7 billion rupees (55 million euros), according to the Fact Focus investigation. Since he took over as army chief six years ago, the worth of his wife’s assets alone have gone from zero to 2.2 billion rupees (9.5 million euros), the website said.
With this investigation, Fact Focus has put precise and sourced numbers to a reality that many Pakistanis have sensed without knowing it, namely the military establishment’s stranglehold on a commercial empire worth billions of rupees.
A sort of “state within the state,” Pakistan’s armed forces rarely tolerate any form of scrutiny by the media. In an analysis published in July, RSF showed how – beneath the surface of a change in the civilian government in April – the Pakistani military had stepped up its intimidation of journalists who dare to criticise it.
Pakistan is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.