For two weeks, journalists from the media outlets have faced death threats and had their personal details published online and widely shared.
The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the “completely unacceptable” online attacks appeared to have been orchestrated by the powerful Pakistani military establishment, which is supportive of Imran Khan’s government.
The Independent’s Urdu language edition was targeted over a report in December about the deaths of four Pakistani soldiers in a helicopter crash.
It was criticised because it did not refer to the deceased soldiers as Shaheed or “martyrs”, a religious term that is not normally used by international media but widely deployed in Pakistan and imposed by the armed forces in such cases.
Thousands of Pakistani internet users have been calling for the website to be shunned, using the #BoycottIndyUrdu hashtag, and threats have also been made to individual journalists. Several tweets under this hashtag urged the Pakistan government to “teach a lesson” to the foreign media.
Baker Atyani, the editor of Independent Urdu, said a formal letter had been written to the Pakistan information ministry and Prime Minister Khan’s office, “putting on record the threat against our journalists, and the systematic online campaign against our service”.
The letter “urged [them] to take timely action and to ensure the safety of our journalists”, Atyani said. “I am hopeful that the Pakistan government will stand by us and to do the right thing.”
Journalists at BBC Urdu were targeted after a video was posted online on 2 January by Siasat.pk, a news website and forum that supports Mr Khan’s ruling party and the armed forces, which accused the BBC of having an editorial policy “against the army and the government”.
The video listed several op-eds and reports by the BBC along with the names, photos and social media profiles of the journalists who wrote them, alleging that they were running a propaganda campaign against Pakistan.
One of the 10 journalists attacked in the video was Asma Shirazi, an award-winning writer who hosts a primetime current affairs show in the country. She told RSF she had been receiving threatening calls, including one which told her she would “get a surprise” if she did not stop writing for BBC Urdu.
“I don’t know what surprise they could give me,” Shirazi said. “One surprise might be the discovery of drugs or explosives in my car during a roadside search.
“This is not the first time I’ve received such threats. I’m being bombarded because of my opinions. This online vilification is part of a grand design to silence professional and independent journalists,” she said.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, and fell three places to 145th in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index for 2020. In a report last month, the International Federation of Journalists noted that 138 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1990, the fourth-highest total in the world behind only Iraq, Mexico and the Philippines.
Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said: “These online hate campaigns, orchestrated by trolls at the military high command’s behest, not only threaten press freedom but are also extremely dangerous for the journalists who are the targets of the death threats.
“Calling for journalists to be murdered, with the aim of intimidating and silencing anyone critical of the authorities, is completely unacceptable. We urge the federal government to disown such calls, and we ask the prosecutor’s office to initiate proceedings against all those responsible for these threats.”