Pakistan — a vibrant press under constraint since 2003
* Three journalists and an author killed, says SAFMA’s ‘Media Monitor2003’ report
By Waqar Gillani
LAHORE The press in Pakistan, last year, remained fiercely independent in its criticism of the country’s military regime, observed the South Asian Free Media Association in its recently published report, “Media Monitor 2003”.
It claimed the rise of the religious right and growing militancy in the name of religion caused problems for various parts of the media: the secular section of the press came remained under pressure while journalists supporting orthodox religious views came down hard on the Musharraf government.
The report observed the most important development for the media took place in October 2002 when the outgoing military regime promulgated a set of six press ordinances before inducting the elected government. These were denounced by the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) (representing the country’s publishers) and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) (of working journalists) as “illegitimate, unethical and unconstitutional”.
The SAFMA critically scrutinised the ordinances and proposed six alternative draft laws.
Meanwhile, the authorities withheld government advertisements in a bid to arm-twist certain newspapers. The Sindhi press, known for its hard-hitting reporting and the Nawa-i-Waqt group of newspapers were both targeted by the government. The report observed that 12 Sindhi newspapers had to wind up their operations in recent years due to lack of government advertising.
One of the most serious attempts by the government to check the free flow of information occurred when the authorities blocked Internet news sites, on the pretext of censoring pornographic material. Three journalists and an author lost their lives in December as they were preparing a documentary on the Taliban. The incident, reports SAFMA, caught the attention of the international media.
Attacks on the Pakistani press:
January 1: Police detained several journalists who attended a press conference held by the Lahore High Court Bar Association to condemn the suspension construction work on a new library in the court building by the bench.
January 6: Javed Akhtar Malik, president of the Faisalabad Union of Journalists, was attacked by unknown assailants but managed to escape unhurt.
January7: A group of armed men attacked the OK Cable Network in Peshawar and smashed its equipment.
January 10: A New York-based Pakistani journalist, Zahid Ghani, was accused by the government of “harming Pakistan’s relations with the United States” when he criticised the US for deporting Pakistanis in large numbers in the wake of 9/11. Also, a group of armed men attacked a cable network company in Peshawar, destroying its equipment and assaulting up its staff.
January 14: The Lahore High Court dismissed a petition seeking to reverse the government’s decision to ban Indian television channels.
January 18: Federal Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat served a Rs 500 million notice to The Friday Times for printing “libellous material” about him. The management of the weekly magazine claimed it had published nothing that other print media had not already reported. Three days later, the minister denied a news report that claimed he had been convicted of a crime before he joined the cabinet and issued a legal notice to Urdu language daily, Khabrain. Later, he admitted in the National Assembly that his name was on the Exit Control List which bars high profile figures wanted in criminal cases from leaving the country.
January 19: Intelligence agents intercepted and thrashed a radio journalist who tried to interview Sehba Musharraf, wife of the Pakistani president, during her visit to the Alhamra cultural complex in Lahore.
January 21: Unidentified assailants killed Fazal Wahab, a freelance writer, as he sat in a shop in the northwestern town of Mingora. He was writing a book, “Mullah ka Kirdar” (The Role of Mullah).
February 1: A journalist, who tried to take a picture of Sehba Musharraf at an art exhibition in Lahore was roughed up by her security guards.
February 22: Two henchmen of Afghan commander Hazrat Ali visited the office of The Frontier Post in Peshawar, threatening staff member, Syed Anwar, with “terrible personal consequences” for reporting that the commander had been arrested by US troops for drug smuggling and helping Al Qaeda fighters escape from military operations in Tora Bora.
March 3: Local journalist Imran Barkat was attacked and seriously injured by drug peddlers in Khankah Doggaran.
March 5: Sheikh Latif, a journalist based in Dera Ghazi Khan, went missing after visiting an influential man in his locality who owed him money.
March 10: A Lahore-based weekly, Independent, complained that Punjab Home Secretary Ejaz Shah threatened its publisher, Ilyas Meraj, by telephone, warning him against terrible consequences for “working against national interests”. Shah, a retired military officer, who formerly served the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), advised the journal to “roll back” its alleged “campaign against the army” if it wanted “to stay in business and stay safe”.
March 16: Mahmood Khattak, a Peshawar-based correspondent with Dawn, reported that police stopped his car and harassed him while he was travelling to Tank from Peshawar.
March 22: About 30 journalists from Peshawar, invited by the NWFP government to the chief minister’s house for a press briefing, were not allowed to enter the place and Security personnel allegedly insulted them on their arrival.
March 24: Intelligence agents picked up journalist and human rights activist, Akhtar Baloch, in Hyderabad. They detained him for three days.
April 11: Policemen thrashed Ashfaq Ali, a senior sub-editor at The News in Karachi, after a police van brushed his motorcycle.
April 12: The Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL) blocked 400 “indecent websites”, bringing the total number of the banned websites to more than 1,800.
April 13: Military officials in the tribal territory of North Waziristan allegedly harassed Hayatullah Khan, a correspondent with the Daily Ausaf, and his family after he reported the “misuse” of military vehicles in the area. His brothers and daughter were expelled from an army-administered school.
April 19: Amir Hashmi, a bookmaker, and his accomplices attacked the office of Khabrain in Sargodha. The newspaper had published reports about his match-fixing activities.
May 14: Paramilitary forces allegedly detained Sarwar Mujahid, a journalist covering issues pertaining to the military farm management in Okara. Mr Mujahid was accused of being a terrorist who was inciting the public against the Rangers. An anti-terrorist court remanded him in police custody for four days. His family complained of receiving threatening telephone calls.
May 22: Police beat journalists outside the Punjab Assembly in Lahore. Officer Aftab Cheema ordered the constables to baton-charge the journalists when they asked him to explain why an assembly member had been arrested.
May 29: Press photographers were denied entry into the Supreme Court of Pakistan to cover the proceedings of a case against a leader of the lawyers’ community.
May 31: Authorities blocked access to the Washington-based website, South Asia Tribune. A Tribune spokesman said in a statement the Pakistan Internet Exchange, established in 2002 to offer a single point of access to the ISPs in Pakistan, executed the punitive action.
June 10: A court in Peshawar sentenced sub-editor Munawar Mohsin of The Frontier Post to life imprisonment for publishing a blasphemous letter in the January 29, 2001, edition of the newspaper.
June 27: The information ministry instructed a newspaper not to publish a statement issued by the exiled former prime minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif. Also, Karachi’s Nazim stopped female models from posing for commercial advertisements, calling the practice “obscene and vulgar”.
July 16: Police detained the chief editor of a Lahore-based monthly, Shahrag-e-Pakistan, for allegedly publishing material against the government.
The same day, the government reinforced its ban on the broadcast of Indian television channels by cable operators.
August 8: PEMRA cancelled licenses of six cable operators for violating its rules.
August 15: Authorities in Khuzdar, Balochistan, detained Rasheed Azam, a local journalist, for allegedly distributing anti-army posters.
August 18: Unidentified assailants killed Liaqat Ali, secretary general of the press club in Nowshera.
August 19: Police in Peshawar entered without a warrant the house of a journalist who worked with the Pushto language service of the Voice of America radio station. He was accused of sheltering an outlaw.
In a separate incident, six unidentified gunmen killed Raja Ejaz, a reporter who worked with Khabrain, at his native town of Pind Dadan Khan. His colleagues described his murder as a target killing, but the motives could not be ascertained.
August 30: Police in the southern city of Hyderabad arrested seven local journalists during a visit of the Pakistani president to the city. The same day, Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid said the government received 13 times the amount of coverage given to the opposition on the state-run television channel P1V.
October 4: Unidentified assailants killed a journalist, Amir Bukhsh Brohi, in the town of Shikarpur. The 28-year-old journalist worked for a Sindhi language newspaper, Kawish, and was the president of Shikarpur Press Club.
October 17: Members of the Shakargarh Press Club protested against a threat allegedly issued by a paramilitary forces officer to a local journalist, Inamullah Butt.
October 19: Supporters of Tariq Pervez Janjua, Vice President of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, allegedly attacked press photographers taking Mr Janjua’s pictures after he secured bail following his arrest.
October 21: Amnesty International voiced concern over reports that the Sindh provincial government was interfering with police investigations into the murder of journalist Amir Baksh Brohi in Shikarpur.
October 24: Islamists defaced billboards picturing female models across the Faisalabad district.
October 25: The Information Minister of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) denied reports that the ruling coalition, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), was planning to cancel the declarations of newspapers publishing “obscene material”.
October 26: An association of Muslim clerics, Ittehad Tanzim-i-mema (ITU), in the town of Bara in the tribal belt of Pakistan’s northwest threatened to demolish the house of a local journalist, Nasrullah, for reporting the activities of the ITU.
October 30: Journalists covering the Punjab Assembly proceedings in Lahore staged a protest outside the assembly against the thrashing being given to a colleague by a sanitary inspector of a local hospital.
November 1: Journalist unions in the NWFP asked the provincial authorities to take action against the criminals who tried to attack Jehangir Shehzad, a senior crime reporter in Peshawar, for his investigative features.
November 10: Police in the town of Farooqabad allegedly registered a fake case against a local journalist, Mohammad Sarwar, after he reported alleged misdeeds of the police.
November 14: A female employee of the private Karakuram International University, in the northern city of Gilgit, claimed she was sacked because her brother, Mehboob Khayam, had reported the alleged malpractices of the education institute.
November 19: Journalists in Hyderabad protested the arrest of a colleague, Anwar Siyal, and his son, Zulfiqar, for lodging a police complaint against an army officer.
November 23: Unidentified men torched the car of Amir Mir, senior assistant editor of the Herald magazine, parked outside his house in Lahore. The miscreants also fired at a watchman who rushed to the crime scene. Mr Mir was accused of “subverting national interests” by filing investigative reports.
November 26: A senior police officer ordered an inquiry into the complaint filed by three journalists from Faisalabad that the local police raided their office, damaging furniture and hauling them up without justification.
November 30: Abdul Hafeez, an employee of a Karachi-based newspaper, was shot dead in the Mehmoodabad locality by an unknown man, while he was on his way to his printing press.
December 4: The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a letter to President General Pervez Musharraf that his government was becoming increasingly intolerant of press freedom in Pakistan.
December 9: Five men assaulted journalist Abbas Awan in Sargodha. Reasons remain unknown.
December 10: Journalists’ rights organisation, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), urged the French government to take up the case of Pakistani journalist Amir Mir with the country’s prime minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, during his forthcoming visit to France.
December 18: Two French journalists, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau of the weekly L’Expresse, were arrested along with their Pakistani colleague, Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, in Balochistan for unauthorised activities. Rizvi was charged with hiring local Pashtun tribesmen to pose as Taliban militants for the French journalists who were tried for travelling to restricted areas without meeting visa requiremenst. The Frenchmen were released on January 12, 2004, after a court waived the six-month prison sentence handed to them, but Mr Rizvi’s trial continues.
December 27: The Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL) reportedly asked its international Internet transit provider, FlAG Telecom, to block all pornographic and “objectionable” websites. Meanwhile, a provincial committee of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors condemned the arson attack on a Sindhi language newspaper organisation.
December 31: The Sindh High Court issued notice to the government’s deputy attorney general and the director general of the Federal Investigation Agency in response to a habeas corpus petition moved by the family of Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, arrested along with French journalists earlier in the month. g