In Pakistan, concerns over free speech on the rise, as Gulalai Ismael is detained.

Pakistan’s shrinking space for discourse and dissent lands rights activist Gulalai Ismail in custody.

ISLAMABAD: The Coalition For Women In Journalism is alarmed by the recent detention of Gulalai Ismail. Particularly because no notice or reason was offered to Ms. Ismail or her colleagues, who were also detained. We believe that Gulalai was targeted for her vocalness about issues that have been a seed of contention between the state and dwindling community of rights defenders and free speech in Pakistan.  
Ms. Ismail was stopped at immigration as her name appeared to be on the Exit Control List – ECL is an order by state authorities that bars Pakistani citizen to leave the country. As a norm ECL should reveal the cause of enlisting a citizen. Without offering any corresponding reason, the authorities took Ms. Ismael in custody and took her to their main office. She was allowed to leave after several hours with her parents when her father stood as a personal guarantor. 

Ms. Ismail runs an NGO called Aware Girls in Pakistan and most of her work revolves around her work of support for women and girls. She was detained for her rather recent vocal support of the PTM – Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement – which has been a controversial note of tension for the establishment in the country. In the hours of her detention, her core work for women was neither mentioned not acknowledged. Instead the authorities identified her as supporter of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, and her presence in their rally at Swabi was cited as a possible issue of concern. Ms. Ismael has been targeted before based on her vocal support of PTM. This is starkly symbolic of how the state narrows down on who they want to harass, and for which affiliation.  

Ms. Ismail was released but the incident itself once again reflects the heightened efforts by the state, to suppress dissent.  We at the Coalition for Women In Journalism, are concerned that this kind of harassment is becoming ubiquitous. Journalists, bloggers and rights defenders are unable to critique any move by the various State institutions, without suffering any backlash. 

The dominant narrative is muting out alternative voices, be they of human rights defenders, journalists or civil society organizations working in the areas of advocacy and awareness of civic rights and responsibilities, political awakening and legal rights. 

This has led to not just a culture of being watchful of expressing the truth or criticism for fear of reprisals, it has served to muzzle press freedom through the most insidious form of curbs in the shape of self censorship. Such an environment has directly effected journalists who are facing cases of treason while other persons who come under those sections of the law roam free. 

What happened to Gulalai is indicative of the trying times citizens of Pakistan are living in where fundamental rights of freedom of expression, and movement are being curbed without assigning any reason. We at the Coalition for Women in Journalism express our deep concern and condemnation of the treatment meted out to upright, outspoken journalists performing their professional duties, and to Gulalai in particular. 

This shrinking space for expression will stifle discourse, and give way to unhealthy repressive practices in society. We also demands an investigation into the Gulalai incident. We would urge the authorities to reveal who ordered her detention and under what protocol was this made permissible in the absence of any evidence. 

Text: Afia Salam, Kiran Nazish, Sulome Anderson
The Coalition For Women In Journalism, Pakistan Chapter. 
Contact: Press@womeninjournalism.orgTwitter: @CFWIJ 
About the Coalition The Coalition for Women in Journalism fosters camaraderie between women journalists around the globe. It is the first global support network for women, with mentorship and advocacy at the heart of it. We work with no national or ethnic boundaries, and offer support to women from all backgrounds.
We are born out of the industry’s need of community, equality and mentorship. 
The idea was founded in January 2016, over coffee, by women of different generations. Established in March 2017, the Coalition became the first not-for-profit to offer mentorship to women journalists from several countries and continents. We are independent, impartial and dedicated to a single, vital interest: the well-being of our colleagues. We work with partners worldwide, who share our values and goals, and help us advance our message and efforts. The Coalition strives in all its efforts to promote a culture of stewardship in the global and public interest of good journalism. Empathy and responsibility is at the heart of everything we do.