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Pakistan investigates journalists for honouring Khashoggi during MBS visit

In a letter, Federal Investigation Agency says reporters 'conveyed a very disrespectful message' during Saudi trip in February
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Rawalpindi in February (Reuters)
By Suddaf Chaudry in Islamabad

Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency launched an investigation into journalists and political parties that changed their social media profile photos to that of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the country last month.

According to a letter dated 13 March, the agency’s cybercrime wing was monitoring the social media accounts of six journalists and four political groups.

“A targeted social media campaign was planned/executed against the visit during which few social media activists and groups remained particularly consistent/active till the very last day of the visit,” says the letter, which was shared widely on social media. 

The six journalists, the letter says, displayed Khashoggi’s photo. This act "conveyed a very disrespectful message to the visiting dignity/guest”.

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Saudi journalist Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was murdered and dismembered by a team of Saudi operatives in his country's consulate in Istanbul in October.

His assassination caused an international outcry and poured public and official scorn on Riyadh.

The CIA has concluded that Mohammed bin Salman almost certainly signed off on the operation, though the kingdom denies the crown prince was involved in the plot or its botched coverup.

There were no major protests in Pakistan during bin Salman’s visit to Islamabad with the capital in complete lockdown in order to ensure the security of the Saudi delegates.

Murtaza Solangi, former director general of Radio Pakistan and one of the journalists named on the list, told Middle East Eye that he and others were adopting “a peaceful token protest”.

“They do not want any kind of protest against Mohammed bin Salman,” Solangi said.

Following last month’s visit, Solangi received a leaked letter from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), a wing of Pakistan’s cybercrime body.

Solangi believes he and others were monitored because the Pakistani government needs the financial support that Saudi Arabia offered during the visit, including investment projects worth as much as $20bn.

“Imran Khan’s government is desperately trying to kick start the economy. Khan’s administration were bending over backwards to appease the Saudi monarchy,” he told MEE.

Ayesha Siddiqa, research associate at SOAS South Asia Institute, agreed: “The model Pakistan is looking to follow is to silence the state and is mirroring the kingdom’s censorship. Prior to the crown prince's visit to Pakistan, the government sent officials to various media outlets to prescribe the rules of engagement for journalists that must be obeyed to the letter.”

'We never thought using somebody’s display picture was a crime'

- Umar Cheema, journalist

The journalists argue that their protest was completely professional and in the domain of human rights. They said: “We have been voicing our concerns against the brutal murder of Khashoggi for some time but the Saudi prince’s visit was the aptest time to raise the issue."

Umar Cheema, another one of the journalists, said it was the first time the FIA had taken such strong measures.

“We never thought using somebody’s display picture was a crime,” Cheema, who is very well known in Pakistan, said.

“We have already lost the press freedoms if you look at the wording of the document. They are acting very discreetly, they are requesting us to contact the agency in confidence without involving the target of the investigation.”

Contacted by phone, Bashir Memon, FIA director general, told MEE: “I cannot comment at this stage.”

Abdur Rauf, deputy director of the cybercrimes wing, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Thursday.

The letter’s authenticity has been called into question by journalists. However, a member of the FIA who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that it was an official agency document.

While the letter instructs the interior ministry to act on the FIA’s findings, it is not clear who first instructed the agency to conduct their investigation, a question Pakistani journalists have been asking repeatedly on Thursday.

Pakistan’s prime minister is responsible for the interior ministry, and many of the journalists are concerned at what the next steps might be in the investigation. Currently no additional requests have been made since the letter was circulated.

The Saudi footprint in Pakistan’s media landscape has been steadily increasing, with recent launches of Urdu editions of both the Saudi-owned Arab News and the Independent. Last year, MEE was the first to report that a Saudi national had acquired up to 50 percent of the news site.

According to a 2018 Reporters Without Borders report, the number of journalists and bloggers in Saudi prisons has doubled since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince.

That trend has left many Pakistani media bodies concerned about the costs that the country’s press corps will have to bear to continue receiving the kingdom’s investment.

One reporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “MBS has set new terms. We are feeling very uneasy about Saudi money, but as the Pakistani media houses are facing financial closure, we have no choice but to apply at the Arab media outlets.”

Ammar Masoon, another journalist mention in the FIA letter, tweeted:

Umar Cheema told MEE he believes this could be a watershed moment as Pakistan sets a new precedent to gradually silence critics.

“They are trying to undermine the confidence of journalists - making us think a hundred times before we post anything politically inclined,” he said.

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