The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and another UN expert to the Government of Pakistan on 30 August 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. Regrettably, the Government did not reply within this time frame. If a reply is received it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.
Since the sending of the communication, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam was called in by security officials who asked further information about the threats he received. Since then, no action has been taken.
Mr. Malik Riaz’s legal counsel has continued to threaten Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam with legal action but the latter has yet to receive any summons from the court.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: the threats and intimidations against Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam following his journalistic reporting on allegations of corruption.
Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam is a human rights defender, a journalist and the founder and editor of news website The Pakistan Daily. Previously, he worked for several media outlets including BBC and Geo News, covering Pakistani politics and society. As part of his journalistic career, he has extensively reported on allegations of corruption involving politicians and businessmen in Pakistan.
On 8 December 2022, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam published an article in The Pakistan Daily entitled “Farah Gogi purportedly travelled to Dubai in April 2019 on Bahria Town’s private plane”. The article alleged that in April 2019, Pakistani businessman and CEO of real estate development firm Bahria Town, Mr. Malik Riaz, facilitated an act of corruption involving the then Prime Minister, Mr. Imran Khan. According to the article, Mr. Malik Riaz’s private plane was used to transport a friend of the then First Lady of Pakistan, Bushra Bibi, Ms. Farah Gogi, to Dubai where she sold a high jewelry set that had been gifted to Prime Minister Khan by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, in violation of domestic regulations stipulating that gifts received by government representatives from foreign leaders belong to the State.
On 9 December 2022, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam received a threatening phone call from a representative of Bahria Town, who warned that if Mr. Salam’s article and tweet about the story were not deleted, “routes, alternate to legal routes” would be used.
On the same day, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam received a legal notice from Mr. Malik Riaz’s legal counsel, referring to “false, misleading, derogatory, prejudicial and libelous narrative and statements”. The notice requested an “unconditional apology” from both Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam and The Pakistan Daily, as well as a total compensation of 10 billion rupees (approximately 35 million USD).
In late March 2023, it was verbally reported to Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam through a third-party that Mr. Malik Riaz was considering having him arrested using a fake case with the help of the caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab, about whom the journalist had previously reported on in an alleged tax fraud case. It was then verbally suggested to Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam that he may face an “accident”.
On 15 June 2023, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam received an email from the firm representing Mr. Malik Riaz, warning him that another legal notice would be served upon him, “followed by the initiation of ‘defamation proceedings’ as well as ‘criminal proceedings’ against [him] before the Honourable Courts”. The email also mentioned that Mr. Salam’s actions would “definitely have far reaching consequences, ones [he] might not be able to comprehend”.
On the same day, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam left his home and went into hiding out of fear of a physical attack.
On 4 July 2023, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam received a second legal notice from the same law firm, this time representing Mr. Muhammad Azhar Siddique, the firm’s lead advocate. The legal notice for “False, Misleading, Derogatory, Prejudicial & Libelous Narrative and Statements” was issued in relation to another article published by Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam on 13 June 2023, entitled “What do Malik Riaz, Imran Khan & Farah Gogi have in common?”. In the notice, Mr. Salam was warned that defamation proceedings against him and The Pakistan Daily would “commence shortly”. In addition, the notice requested that Mr. Salam pay a compensation of 2 billion rupees (approximately 7 million USD) to Mr. Muhammad Azhar Siddique, who was mentioned in the 13 June 2023 article.
On 7 July 2023, a rejoinder was sent to Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam by the same law firm, in which they requested that Mr. Salam and The Pakistan Daily each pay an additional compensation of 5 billion rupees to Mr. Malik Riaz in relation to the 13 June 2023 article, bringing the total amount demanded by Mr. Riaz to 20 billion rupees (approximately 70 million USD). The rejoinder reiterated that a criminal complaint for defamation would be submitted against Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam.
At the time of writing, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam has not yet received any summons from the court.
In July 2023, Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam also started receiving online threats on Twitter. One anonymous account in particular issued a series of threatening tweets: “What’s taking Malick so long man? just get rid of this garbage from this world”; “Why file a defamation proceedings against journalists and waste money when in power you could kidnapped and abduct them” and “Hamza you are wrong about everything or everyone except Malick Riaz […] he is coming for you baby”.
In the communication, we express our serious concern at the reported intimidation and online threats against Mr. Hamza Azhar Salam, as well as the possible judicial proceedings against him, which appear to be directly linked to his legitimate human rights work against corruption and the exercise of his right to freedom of expression.
We are concerned that criminal defamation proceedings may be abused to target journalists and those who report on allegations of corruption, misconduct of politicians, public officials or businesses, or other cases of public interest.