LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani court on Friday allowed an anti-corruption body to investigate the owner of the country’s largest media group on allegations of graft dating back three decades, a move that rights groups said was aimed at stifling press freedom.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the owner and editor-in-chief of Jang media group, publisher of Urdu and English newspapers and which runs the popular Geo News TV, was arrested on Thursday by the anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
NAB, which accused him of obtaining illegal property concessions from a previous government in 1986, presented Rehman to an anti-corruption court, which said he could be held in custody and investigated for 12 days, his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said his arrest was an attack on press freedom.
Jang media group said the case was trumped up and being used as an attempt to silence Rehman and his company because of its reporting that was critical of the government and NAB.
The group said in a statement that the anti-corruption body had sent “our reporters, producers and editors -- directly or indirectly -- over a dozen notices” threatening to shut down the Geo News TV channel because of its reporting.
Pakistan’s opposition parties have long accused NAB of being used as a political tool by the government and the powerful military to quash critics.
NAB, the government and the military deny the accusation, saying the body acts independently in line with the law.
“It is regretful to connect an inquiry against a businessman with freedom of press,” Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s relations with the press and broadcasters have become increasingly strained since he took office after an election in 2018.
Opponents say Khan secured office with the help of a crackdown on the media and his opponents by the military, which has a history of involvement in Pakistani politics, including staging coups to oust civilian governments.
Activists say a crackdown on the media since 2018 has left 3,000 journalists and other media workers jobless.
The prime minister and the military, who deny any collusion, have long accused Jang media group of siding with Khan’s main rival, former two time prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Murtaza Solangi, a senior journalist who says he lost his job in the crackdown, described Rehman’s arrest as an act of “fascist thuggery”.
“We have been under immense pressure for a very long time for taking a stance of an independent media and questioning various actions of the government and NAB,” Geo News President Imran Aslam told Reuters.
Geo News has been taken off air several times in recent years at the order of the state-run media regulator or because of what it says is government pressure on cable operators. It said on Friday it was being forced to shutdown again.
Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Edmund Blair
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.