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Pakistan 12 May 2004

Heavy-handed treatment of media as opposition politician tries to return from exile

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) lambasted Pakistan for its heavy-handed treatment of the media as journalists tried to cover an attempted return from exile by opposition politician Shahbaz Sharif, brother of ex-Prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Intense official pressure was brought to bear on private ARY Digital TV, a CNN journalist was arrested and police reacted violently to journalists trying to cover the event in Lahore, it said.

"The way in which the Pakistani authorities tried to hide the return of this opposition politician shows the Pakistan governments’ lack of openness in free expression and democracy in general," the international press freedom organisation said in a letter to information and broadcasting minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

The organisation demanded an explanation for the pressure applied to the privately-owned media to stop them covering the event and called for punishment of police who manhandled journalists in Lahore.

ARY Digital TV at the last moment on 9 May pulled an interview with Shahbaz Sharif, president of the opposition PML (N) party, intended to mark his return from exile. Executives of the British-based channel said the decision was the result of "huge government pressure". The presenter gave no explanation but said, "We believe in freedom of expression."

Police on 11 May placed producer Syed Mohsin Naqvi, of the US cable channel CNN in Pakistan under house arrest to prevent him interviewing Shahbaz Sharif. The security forces used the pretext of a bomb alert to enter his Lahore home without permission.

Also on 11 May police prevented journalists from reaching Lahore international airport in the east of the country to witness the politician’s return. Reporters, including a BBC crew, who travelled in the same plane with Sharif, were arrested, questioned searched or roughly treated by commandos who surrounded the plane after landing.

Police manhandled Zafar Abbas, BBC correspondent in Islamabad, and took his passport and journalistic equipment. He and a BBC cameraman were then put into a police van for one hour. Police also seized a video cassette.

A journalist on an English-language daily and a reporter from an Urdu daily were beaten at a police checkpoint at the airport entrance. Secret service agents deployed to pick out journalists in the airport zone. Security forces also checked and harassed opposition supporters in Lahore to forestall any pro-Sharif demonstrations. Sharif himself was expelled to Saudi Arabia after spending less than two hours in Pakistan.

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