A top U.N. agency on Wednesday demanded justice for a freelance Pakistani journalist who was murdered earlier this month, as activists warned of a shrinking space for dissent and threats to freedom of speech.
Muhammad Bilal Khan, a social media activist, blogger and freelancer with tens of thousands of followers across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, was stabbed to death in Islamabad on June 16.
The motive for the killing is not known, but Bilal cast a wide net with his criticism, with the military, politicians, sportsmen, religious figures and even fellow journalists coming in for their share. Local police said on the day of his death he received a phone call from an unidentified person, who took him to a nearby forest and killed him.
“I condemn the killing of Muhammad Bilal Khan,” UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said in a statement, calling for “authorities investigating this crime to bring its perpetrators to trial.”
The statement came after an earlier condemnation by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which asked Pakistani authorities to “swiftly investigate the killing to determine the motive and hold the perpetrators to account.”
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that must be preserved for everybody, regardless of individuals’ religious or political opinion,” Azoulay said.
Censorship is already rife among the country’s once-riotous mainstream media, with the CPJ noting last year that the military had “quietly but effectively” imposed strict limits on reporting.
Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were regarded as the last holdouts of dissenting voices, but now even that has changed.
In February, authorities announced the creation of a new enforcement arm to root out social media users accused of spreading “hate speech and violence” as part of the crackdown.
Pakistan routinely ranks among the world’s most dangerous countries for media workers, and reporters have frequently been detained, beaten and even killed for being critical of the government or powerful military.