The acquittal of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman comes nearly two years after he was imprisoned. The decision is a long-awaited victory for media freedom and public interest journalism.

Mir Shakul-ur-Rahman (MSR) was acquitted by an accountability court in Lahore today of charges dating back to property purchases more than thirty years ago. Geo News reported the court also ordered all seized properties to be returned to him.

MSR is the editor-in-chief of the Geo and Jang media group, one of the largest media organisations in Pakistan. He was imprisoned in March 2020 by the National Accountability Bureau on charges relating to a property transaction in 1986. That arrest took place against a wider backdrop of deteriorating media freedom, and an increase in government threats towards independent media.

“The arrest of Mr Rahman was still shocking because the charge was so flimsy and the procedure such blatant violation of so many laws,” said the Jang Group Managing Director, Shakrukh Hasan, at the time of the arrest. He said independent media has been under severe pressure, and that Prime Minister Imran Khan used “financial strangulation – suspended advertising, withheld past due payments and cut advertising rates – as well as tried to establish special courts to ‘regulate’ the media.”

Read more: Journalists face Contempt of Court charges

At the time of his arrest, PMA wrote to Mr Khan urging the immediate release of MSR. These calls were not heeded, and he spent eight months – just over 200 days – in detention. Over that period, which there were numerous protests by Jang-Geo staff and international outcry from media freedom organisations with concerns about his welfare. He was eventually granted bail in November 2020.

The decision to acquit MSR is long-overdue, but welcome. It affirms what PMA, the Jang Group, Pakistani journalists, and media freedom organisations have consistently said: this was an arbitrary arrest which lacked any legitimacy, and amounted to a clear attack on independent media. MSR’s acquittal has been warmly received by other media figures in Pakistan. It was welcomed by President and Editor in Chief for the Dunya Media Group, Kamran Khan, on Twitter; and Geo news reporter Murtaza Ali Shah said MSR stands “vindicated”; and Op-Ed editor at The News International, Zebunnisa Burki, described the case as a “witch-hunt”.

But despite this acquittal, MSR still faces contempt of court charges alongside two journalists from The News International, which is owned by the Jang Group. PMA has also called for these charges to be dropped. The charges are due to be framed at the Islamabad High Court on 15 February. It demonstrates the ongoing challenges that independent, public-interest media face in Pakistan.

Header Image: Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the owner, CEO and Editor in Chief of Geo TV and the Jang Media Group. Credit: Geo