A prominent Pakistani journalist was severely beaten up by masked attackers at his home in Islamabad on Tuesday, prompting uproar on social media over the state of press freedom in the country.
Asad Ali Toor, who produces a show on Pakistan’s Aaj News network, was known for criticising the country’s establishment.
In a police statement recorded in hospital, Toor said three men armed with handguns barged into his apartment in Islamabad's F-10 neighbourhood before tying him up, gagging and beating him.
“They kept hitting my elbows with the butt of their pistols,” he said. “When I started screaming, they tried to cover up my mouth and kept shouting at me to be quiet.”
Toor said the masked men identified themselves as members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency – ISI – which rights groups repeatedly accused of similar attacks and extra-judicial killings in the past.
He said the attackers asked Toor about the source of his funding and told him to stop reporting on "state institutions".
“As I kept screaming, they turned away and said that we’re leaving now, be quiet or we will shoot you dead.”
Security camera footage appeared to show three assailants fleeing the scene before Toor emerges from his apartment and drops to his knees with his hands bound.
Toor had described being harassed repeatedly by the authorities in recent weeks, predicting a more serious attack in a video posted to Twitter.
He was accused of defaming the Pakistani military in 2020, although the case was dropped when the Lahore High Court found no evidence to support the charges.
Opposition leaders, human rights groups and fellow journalists were quick to condemn the attack on Toor.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) called on the government to ensure security for journalists.
"HRCP strongly condemns the brutal assault on journalist Asad Toor by three unknown men who barged into his residence. We see it as yet another attack on freedom of expression and a free press. HRCP demands that the authorities apprehend and charge the assailants immediately," it said in a tweet.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Vice President Maryam Nawaz said the attack was shocking.
Pakistan People's Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto demanded an inquiry into the incident. "The regime's cowardliness is on full display when journalists and freedom of the press are under attack".
Attacks on journalists are common in Pakistan.
In July last year, well-known television journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted by unidentified men outside a school in Islamabad.
Jan said he had been bound, gagged and beaten during a 12-hour ordeal.
Press freedom monitor Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describe an increasingly hostile media environment.
The South Asian country ranked 145 out of 180 countries on RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
News media in the country, it said, “have become a priority target for the country’s ‘deep state’, a euphemism for the military and Inter-Services Intelligence, the main military intelligence agency, and the significant degree of control they exercise over the civilian executive”.
A police representative confirmed the attack and said an investigation was ongoing.