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Pakistan 16 June 2004

Arrests, threats and press freedom violations in South Waziristan

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) said it has recorded an increase in breaches of press freedom since the start of a latest Pakistani military offensive against Islamist groups at the border with Afghanistan, particularly in the Shakai region.

At least four journalists have been arrested in the past four days, a BBC World Service stringer threatened and reporters from Peshawar prevented from entering the tribal areas, the international press freedom organisation said.

Pakistani and international public opinion has the right to know what is going on in the tribal areas, it said. It was unacceptable for the army to impose a news blackout and arrest or threaten journalists who were doing their jobs in difficult conditions.

"We are aware of the security requirements of the military operations now under way, but Reporters Without Borders considers that Pakistani and foreign journalists should have a minimum of access to the conflict areas," it said in a letter to the military Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) spokesman General Shaukat Sultan.

Pakistani authorities arrested four journalists for several hours in South Waziristan on 12 June. They were: Allah Noord Wazir of the daily The Nation, Amir Nawab Khan of the daily The Frontier Post, Mujeebur Rehman and the daily Khabrian and a fourth unidentified reporter all trying to reach the Shakai region where the army has launched a large scale operation against Islamist fighters, some linked to Al-Qaeda. Rehman, also a stringer for several foreign television channels, said the army seized his camera and video tapes as well as those of his colleagues.

Dilawar Wazir, stringer with BBC World Service, who reported this news on air, was then threatened by a local official in the South Waziristan capital Wana, who told him that journalists attempting to go to the Shakai region would face "serious problems".

The Pakistani Army had apparently ordered local authorities to prevent the press from reaching the area where the fiercest fighting was under way. Gen. Sultan confirmed that this step had been taken, for "security reasons". Several journalists in Wana told Reporters Without Borders that officials refused to give them any news about the situation on the ground.

The administration of the Khyber Agency tribal area on 13 June refused to allow Peshawar-based journalists access to the tribal areas. The press wanted to cover a traditional assembly called by the Pakistan Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami in protest at military operations and actions against Pashtun tribes. An official, flanked by dozens of Pakistani paramilitaries, said he had orders from the governor to stop journalists getting through. He threatened to use force if the press tried to enter the tribal areas without permission.

The Pakistani Army has imposed major restrictions since March 2004, particularly against foreign journalists covering military operations against the presence of Al-Qaeda or Islamist fighters in the Pashtun tribal areas. At least a dozen journalists have been arrested since then.

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