Sunday, April 04, 2004

Media & Musharraf in Pakistan

The Press in Pakistan is not enjoying greater freedom under its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took over power in a military coup in 1999. Journalists still operate under pressure from the military, police, religious hard-liners, intelligence agencies, and the country’s antiquated blasphemy laws. Since parliamentary elections in October 2002, which were held with the stated goal of restoring democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan, the government has been locked in a power struggle between Musharraf’s attempts to strengthen the presidency and Parliament’s demand that he relinquish his title as head of the army and rule the country as a civilian president.
Government did not keep its promise to respect press freedom. The ubiquitous security services harassed the country's journalists, while the adoption of new press laws posed a threat to the relatively critical tone of the print media. Relations between the press, police and the military regime worsened in the recent months of 2004.
Sajid Tanoli, a reporter with the Urdu-language daily Shumal, was shot and killed in Manshera , Pakistan's . Police have filed murder charges against Manshera's local government head, Khalid Javed. Tanoli was killed after he wrote an article on January 26,2004 about an allegedly illegal liquor business run by Javed. Enraged by the article, Javed filed a libel suit against Shumal . Then, two days later, he shot Tanoli, who died instantly, and fled the scene. Pakistan Press Club (PPC) protested today at Pakistan's concerted efforts to stop foreign and local journalists freely covering the army's offensive against armed Taliban and Al-Qaeda supporters in the Wana region of South Waziristan. At least four journalists have been arrested and a dozen more barred entering from the area.
The government's duty to ensure basic security for journalists must not be used as an excuse to prevent them independently reporting on this major operation in the fight against terrorism by arresting them, keeping them out of the area and seizing their equipment. It called on armed forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan to guarantee better media access to the region by giving journalists special passes.
The government has barred nearly all Pakistani and foreign journalists from the South Waziristan tribal area, where the combat zone has been tightly sealed off by the military, which did however put on a helicopter tour for foreign journalists on 20 March, though not to the area of the fighting itself.
Mujeebur Rehman (daily Khabrian) was arrested on 16 March while filming military operations near Wana. His digital camera was confiscated and has not been returned to him. Shaukat Khattak, reporter with Pakistani TV Geo TV, was arrested on 18 March in Dabkot while filming army activity. Despite having the right documents, he was detained for four hours, during which he said soldiers threatened and insulted him "as if I was a terrorist."
A photographer for the Associated Press was turned back by troops at a roadblock about an hour's drive from Wana on 19 March. Half a dozen other journalists, including two Pakistani photographers, were not allowed into South Waziristan, which is more than 10 hours by road south of Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan.
Haroon Rashid, correspondent of BBC radio in Peshawar, and Saiful Islam, of daily Surkhab and Arab TV Al-Jazeera, were arrested at Peshawar military hospital on 21 March. They were trying to interview soldiers wounded in the South Waziristan fighting. Pakistani intelligence officials interrogated them about why they were there. All their film was destroyed and their minidisc recorders confiscated. More than a dozen journalists in Wana currently work as stringers for Pakistani and foreign media but their employers say they are not allowed to work freely. They cannot enter the combat zone and have to be very careful what they report, said one Islamabad-based foreign journalist, who said they were under pressure and sometimes reacted according to their tribal origin.
Working conditions for my journalist fellows are not safe in the tribal areas. Safety and freedom are limited .Also local authorities and traditional leaders threaten correspondents who denounce their abuses, often committed in the name of Frontier crimes regulation. Government started advertising restrictions to pressure Pakistani newspapers into curtailing their criticism of officials.
Two months ago the federal government discouraged its departments from advertising in newspapers belonging to one of Pakistan's leading media organisations, the Nawa-i-Waqt Group of Publications. As a result, neither the federal nor provincial government has been advertising in the following newspapers: "The Nation," "Nawa-i-Waqt" and "Ausaf" in Islamabad, "Balochistan Express" and "Azadi" in Quetta, "Ummat," the "Financial Post," the "Daily Intikhab" and "Jassarat" in Karachi, and others.
Nawa-i-Waqt Group is one of Pakistan’s leading media organizations and publishes more than 10 daily newspapers and magazines. Group’s Executive Editor Arif Nizami blamed the government action on the newspaper’s critical coverage. "Our reporting about the supremacy of democratic institutions in the country pains the rulers," said Nizami. Local journalists say that this action is an attempt by the government to pressure and control independent newspapers in Pakistan.Pakistani Government’s move against the Nawa-i-Waqt Group is an example of press freedom violations in Pakistan.In the past, many of these newspapers have criticised the government of General Pervez Musharraf, and I fears that the ban is being used to weaken Pakistan's independent media by making it clear that criticism can have dire financial consequences.
Media world has expressed its concern about the fate of a young reporter who was kidnapped by bandits in Sind province on 4 March 2004. The abduction of Shabbaz Pathan, correspondent for the daily Halchal, published in southern Hyderabad, was believed linked to a report by his brother, a TV journalist, on impunity enjoyed by bandits who infest the Sukkur region. Armed men seized Pathan in broad daylight as he left his Sukkur office. They were apparently taken to Shah Belo forest near Sukkur, where the bandits have hideouts. The gangsters who are holding the journalist have made a ransom demand to his family. Asad Pathan, correspondent in Sukkur for ARY TV and general secretary of the local press club, told that the kidnapping of his brother could have been linked to a recent report of his on ARY TV about activities linking local criminals to some landowners. The head of government for Sindh has ordered the police to act in the case, but police efforts have so far not produced results.
Pakistani journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi is facing charges for allegedly faking a report for two French magazine journalists about armed Taliban activities along the Afghan border. Because he is being tried in an anti-terrorism court, Rizvi was not eligible for bail.Rizvi, 44, is reported to be weak and with lung problems as a result of bad prison conditions and torture by police and military intelligence officials during his secret detention since mid-December.he has not been allowed visitors. He was previously jailed for four years and a half in the 1980s while campaigning for democracy and against the dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
While you are reading these lines Mehdi is believed to be released on bail, on the order of the special anti-terrorist court in Quetta. Government should go further by dropping charges against the journalist. Rizvi however is still accused of "conspiracy" and "sedition" and he will have to attend court at each stage of the trial, although he will be allowed to live in Islamabad.
The case against Rizvi is political, and that holding the trial in an anti-terrorism court is meant to send a warning to the journalism community in Pakistan.