The ongoing victimization and media trial of Pakistan’s emerging media house, the Bol Media Group, and its parent company Axact, the largest exporter of software solutions and the biggest IT Company in Pakistan, have been forcibly closed by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) due to fabricated and malicious charges, depriving 8000 employees of their livelihood.
Fourteen members of Axact’s top management have been languishing in jail, denied bail on false pretexts. Moreover, to date, the case has not been heard in court, on various pretexts, making life a constant misery for Axact’s staff and management.
On May 18, 2015, within 12 hours of the publication of an article in New York Times magazine regarding the fake degree scam allegedly perpetuated by Axact, the FIA raided the company’s offices in Islamabad and Karachi, and later sealed them without any warrant or court order.
The FIA also detained dozens of Axact employees, subjecting them to harassment and torture, and pressuring them to make false statements against their management.
On May 27, Axact’s bank accounts were frozen and its Chief Executive officer Mr. Shoaib Ahmed Sheikh and Chief Operating Officer Viqas Attiq were arrested without formal charges.
Seven months later, both men are still in jail and the FIA continues to occupy Axact offices in Karachi & Islamabad. All of Axact’s records, computers, servers, printers, valuables and even staff belongings are currently under FIA’s possession, in violation of court orders. Hundreds of computers and other equipment were shifted from Axact to unknown places without any Seizure Memo.
Not only have FIA officials thus conducted illegal actions, but they are also allegedly involved in loot and plunder; Axact officials reportedly have credible information that their expensive technical equipment is being sold in the market.
Axact vehicles have also been confiscated by the FIA without any justification. When the impoundment was challenged in court, the official under oath stated that no such confiscation was made. This false statement amounts to contempt of court, but no action was taken against the official.
As per law, the FIA has to produce a Challan (the case from prosecution) within 14 days of lodging the FIR. However, an interim Challan was submitted on June 13, 17 days after the FIR was registered. The interim and incomplete challan was deemed sufficient by the magistrate to proceed with the trial. On June 27, the FIA submitted a supplementary challan, but failed to produce any evidence to justify the contents of the FIR and Challan.
Despite the FIA being unable to provide evidence against Axact officials, bail was denied with the judge stating that bail can’t be granted as it is a high profile case. Even though bail can be granted to a murderer under Pakistani law, government pressure is denying bail to persons accused of white collar crime.
FIA officials threatened to charge several employees if they refused to testify against Mr. Shoaib Ahmed Sheikh. The FIA also pressurized the accused in custody to become approvers. One of the accused, Zeeshan Anwer, was threatened of dire consequences if he refused to become an approver. Zeeshan along with another accused were removed from Central jail while they were on judicial remand, without court permission, to coerce them to become approvers against Axact. The incident speaks volumes about the rule of law in Pakistan, and how law enforcement agencies are allowed to take the law into their hands without fear of any disciplinary or judicial action.
A notification from the Sindh government’s Home Department authorized the FIA counter-terrorism wing barrack No. 48 as sub jail for the accused. The crimes they are being held for do not fall under the ambit of terrorism by any stretch of the imagination or law, and yet the two Axact employees are being treated as terrorists, and preparations are being made to hold their trial in camera, in jail.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended licenses of Bol News and Bol Entertainment illegally and in violation of High Court orders, which bar the regulator from any such move. Axact and Bol group are being victimized to curb freedom of expression and press in Pakistan. The state punishes any and every person who wants to expose the truth and appraise the public of state corruption. As key vehicles of communication and expression, the ability of the media to function independently is vital to freedom of expression, but also to the ability of a society to function and survive.
Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of expression: Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press…..
Article 19(A) further states:
“Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”.
According to article 19 of the ICCPR,
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
It is thus incumbent upon the state to allow media houses freedom without coercion and undue pressure. The Bol Media Group is being made to suffer media trial and public shaming for no fault of its own. The PEMRA should also take action against channels that are maligning the name of Bol without any justification or proof.
It must also be noted that the Bol Media Group set up Pakistan’s most modern and biggest media infrastructure. It takes pride in providing market remunerations to its employees, which is against the prevalent trend of the industry in which salaries of the majority of workers have not been revised for the past four to five years. The Bol Media Group also provided medical cover and life insurance facilities to all its employees, their families including parents, which is rare in Pakistan’s media industry. It also provided clean, hygienic and state-of-the-art working conditions for its media workers. This is also uncommon in Pakistan’s media industry where the majority of media workers are not just paid low salaries, but also work in a pathetic environment where even clean toilet facilities and drinking water are unavailable. All these facilities and decent life-style have been provided to Axact employees since the late 1990s.