Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) is calling on Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon, to intervene with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali on behalf of four jailed journalists.
The call follows the Commonwealth’s 22 May decision to re-admit Pakistan, five years after it was suspended following the military coup that brought General Musharraf to power in 1999.
The organisation pointed out that press freedom violations have increased in recent months. It hoped that Pakistan’s re-entry to the Commonwealth could lead to real human rights improvements, particularly the release of journalists behind bars, along with the acquittal of Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who is at risk of a life sentence.
The Pakistani authorities have secretly held Sami Yousafzai, of the US magazine Newsweek, since 21 April 2004. The authorities have not confirmed his arrest and there is still no news of his taxi driver, Mohamed Salim. Reporters Without Borders fears that Sami Yousafzai could be tried under the special Frontier Crimes Regulations, under which he is unlikely to get a fair trial.
Former letters page editor on The Frontier Post, Munawar Mohsin, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the High Court in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on 8 July 2003, for "selecting" and "publishing" a letter that allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad and was therefore blasphemous and a violation of the criminal code. Mohsin was arrested in Peshawar on 29 January 2001, the same day that the offending letter appeared in the newspaper, signed by someone identified as Ben Dzec.
On 12 August 2003, Rasheed Azam, journalist on local publications Intikhab and Asap and a human rights activist in south-western Baluchistan province was arrested for distributing posters showing a soldier beating young demonstrators. During the police investigation, reference was also made to his articles criticising federal policy towards Baluchistan and he was reportedly beaten in the course of interrogation sessions.
Since April 1999, Rehmat Shah Afridi, former editor of the dailies The Frontier Post and Maidan, has been held in harsh conditions. He was sentenced to death in June 2001, for "drug-trafficking and possession". He has always proclaimed his innocence. The Lahore High Court on 20 May 2004 condemned police destruction of key material evidence under which Afridi was convicted, confirming that the journalist was the victim of Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) revenge for his exposure of the US-financed body’s abuse of power and corruption. He was tortured following his arrest and placed in the death row in Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore (in Punjab province). Until recently, he was never let out of his cell and had no mattress.
Another Pakistani journalist, Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who worked for the French weekly L’Express, was held in secret by the military for several weeks. He was released from prison in Quetta on 29 March 2004 by order of the local anti-terrorist court, though he will be on bail and must still appear in court to face charges of "conspiracy" and "sedition." He was arrested with two journalists on 16 December 2003 in Karachi just after completing a report on Taliban groups at the border with Afghanistan.
Reporters Without Borders has also sent the top Commonwealth official a copy of the Pakistan chapter of its 2003 annual report, that details 12 arrests, 27 assaults and at least six threats against journalists. The organisation did also highlight some improvements, particularly the emergence in Pakistan of private television channels.