Area: 796,100 sq.km.
Head of state: President (Gen.) Pervez Musharraf
The struggle against Islamist terrorism, which is very active in Pakistan, has given the authorities a pretext for cracking down on independent news media. Journalists who are critical of President Pervez Musharraf’s policies and those working for the foreign press are the leading targets of the security services. The army also imposed a news blackout on its military operations in the areas bordering on Afghanistan.
The year began with Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, reporters working for the French weekly L’Express, being sentenced on 10 January 2004 to six months in prison for violating the 1946 Foreigners Act. They had been arrested in mid-December in Karachi for entering an area adjoining the Afghan border without permission in order to do a report about the Taliban. The sentence was commuted to a fine on appeal and they left the country on 13 January 2004. But their fixer, Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, continued to be held secretly by army intelligence. He was tortured while in detention and was not released until March. Thereafter, the military pressured the judges to give him a heavy sentence in a prosecution for "conspiracy" and "sedition." He was forced to leave the country at the end of 2004 and was to be tried in absentia.
Similarly, Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai of the US magazine Newsweek was detained from 21 April to 2 June for accompanying an American journalist into the area that has been declared off-limits to the press.
The authorities regularly targeted journalists deemed to be harming the country’s interests. Armed forces spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan in September accused the Pakistani media of "selling the national interest in return for a few hundred dollars." He said a ban on journalists circulating in South Waziristan was justified because some had acted unethically and "helped the foreign media to discredit Pakistan."
A war without witnesses
Enlisted into fighting alongside the United States in its war on terror, the Pakistani government decided to fight the war without any witnesses. From March onwards, it became virtually impossible to cover the military operations being carried out against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in South Waziristan.
Reporters Without Borders registered more than 25 cases of journalists being arrested, or prevented from circulating freely, or having their equipment confiscated in this area. In June, at least four reporters were detained, a BBC World Service stringer was threatened and journalists from Peshawar were prevented from entering the Tribal Areas. The military thereby achieved their goal. Very few photos or video images of the fighting, in which dozens of civilians died, were seen abroad. On a few occasions, the army invited journalists to witness the victories of its military offensive.
The restrictions on the work of the press did not only affect South Waziristan. Foreign journalists did not get visas to go to Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. The press was closely watched in other areas adjoining the Afghan border such as Balochistan, and in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. Kargil International, a pro-independence magazine in the Kashmir region, was banned in 2004.
The military intelligence threat
Military intelligence services, especially the ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), targeted their threats and intimidation against independent journalists. Amir Mir, the deputy editor of the monthly The Herald, was subjected to repeated intimidation beginning in November that included visits to his home, phone calls and interception of his e-mail. The withdrawal of state-sector advertising was a weapon that was also used to effect by the government. It was withdrawn from the conservative press group, Nawa-i-Waqt Publications, in February and from the Urdu-language daily Jinnah in July.
The provincial authorities did not lag far behind. In Punjab, Sarwar Mujahid, the correspondent of the Urdu-language daily Nawa-i-Waqt in the eastern Okara district, was detained for several months for writing about a dispute between tenant farmers and paramilitaries. The Punjab authorities on 31 August closed the Islamabad Times, a new daily founded by Masood Malik that was due to start publishing a few days later. The newspaper’s printer, his son and two of his employees were detained for about a week. This closure may have been linked to an incident in July 2001 when Malik was fired from Nawa-i-Waqt for asking the president an embarrassing question during a press conference. In the Punjabi capital of Lahore, a score of policemen on 12 November confiscated equipment from the studios of FM Radio 103, a station that relayed the BBC World Service’s Urdu-language programmes. Two of its journalists were briefly detained.
The authorities also took it upon themselves to defend the moral order. In May, the government of Sindh province closed five newspapers on grounds of obscenity, which amounted to no more than the occasional photo of "scantily-clad women," journalists in Karachi said.
As a result, the press has become less and less inclined to tackle subjects likely to cause irritation such as military corruption. The authorities could meanwhile always count on a number of journalists in the state and privately-owned media to disparage such eternal enemies as the Indians, or enemies of the moment such as the foreign press.
The press was the victim of sectarian violence. In the Peshawar region, the police made no attempt to arrest the Islamist activists who often sabotaged the installations of cable TV operators who were deemed anti-Islamic. In February and March, Shiite protesters attacked the Karachi press club and set fire to the offices of the daily newspaper Jang in the western city of Quetta because Geo TV, a television station owned by the Jang press group, had broadcast comments that were considered "insulting" to Shiism.
The media also suffered if they tried to report on the activities of the military regime’s opponents. When Shahbaz Sharif, an opposition member and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, tried to return to Pakistan on 11 May, considerable pressure was put on the privately-owned TV station ARY Digital TV to suspend the broadcasting of an interview with him. A CNN producer, Syed Mohsin Naqvi, was arrested and about 10 journalists were manhandled by police at Lahore airport.
The English-language daily The Frontier Post stayed in the news with the release in November of its former letters page editor, Munawar Moshin Ali, after judges in Peshawar lifted the blasphemy charges against him. Previously, a double death sentence passed in 2003 on The Frontier Post editor Rehmat Shah Afridi for alleged hashish-trafficking was commuted by the Lahore high court in June to life imprisonment. Afridi continued to protest his innocence of the charges, which were brought against him by the national anti-narcotics agency, the ANF.
No appeal hearings in Pearl case
There were new, disturbing developments in the case of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent who was kidnapped in Karachi in January 2002 and subsequently murdered. Two persons accused of participating in the abduction, Asim Ghafoor and Amjad Farooqi, were killed by the security forces during arrest attempts. Agence France-Presse said police prevented photographers from taking pictures of the body of Ghafoor who, according to a doctor at the Karachi Civil Hospital, was shot four times in the head and chest.
Omar Sheikh, the alleged mastermind of Pearl’s abduction and the only person to have received a death sentence in the case, was transferred in January from Hyderabad prison (not far from Karachi, in the far south) to a detention centre near Rawalpindi (and close to Islamabad). This was illegal as Sheikh was still waiting for his appeal to be heard in Karachi. The Sindh high court kept postponing the hearings.
1 journalist was killed
25 were in prison
19 were physically attacked
9 media premises were physically attacked
8 news media were banned
"Our fight has not been in vain"
Sailab Mehsud is the president of the Tribal Union Journalists, based in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. He spoke on behalf of all his colleagues who tried from March to August 2004, despite many obstacles, to cover the operations by the Pakistani security forces against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in South Waziristan.
Truth is always the first victim of war. And so it was again in the offensive against terrorism in South Waziristan, an agitated tribal war adjoining the border with Afghanistan. The rights to inform and be informed and to have access to information were all obstructed from the very outset of the military operations carried out in 2004 by the Pakistani security forces against the hundreds of militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban hiding in Waziristan.
When the operation was launched on 16 March near Wana, South Waziristan’s regional headquarters, the doors of the civilian and military authorities remained closed to journalists and we were given no information about the military activity. This is why the detailed information obtained from independent sources did not match what officials were saying.
During the military operations, every effort was made to discourage journalists in the Tribal Areas from covering events independently. Both civilian and military authorities made their anger known whenever there was an objective account of what was happening. We were subjected to threats and intimidation and some journalists had their cameras or video-cameras seized. Some were even detained.
An Al-Jazeera TV crew from Doha, Qatar, was arrested at the Jandola checkpoint in South Waziristan and was refused permission to interview the population in the Tribal Areas about the military operations under way.
Mujeebur Rehman of the Daily Times and Younis Wazir of the privately-owned news agency Online were detained by the military on 16 March. They were treated as if they were Al-Qaeda terrorists. They had to spend a night in a detention centre and Rehman’s video-camera was confiscated. It was returned to him, damaged, a few months later.
Four journalists - Allah Noor of The Nation, Mujeebur Rehman of the daily Khabrian, Amir Nawab Khan of The Frontier Post and photographer Syed Wazir - were arrested on 12 June just after setting off from Wana for the Shakai valley to the north to cover a vast military offensive. They were detained for four hours and sent back without getting permission to enter the combat zone.
In any war, neither side wants independent and unbiased news coverage. We faced this situation when neither the military authorities, nor the civil authorities nor the militants were satisfied with the way the press was covering the situation in Waziristan. And we also had to cope with pressure from the tribal chiefs.
We received phone calls and threatening messages from militants linked to Al-Qaeda when they did not appreciate a comment concerning then. Tribal chiefs asked for some news media to be banned after they ran reports about them. They called for the demolition of the home a journalist whose article was deemed "negative."
The operation launched in March 2004 has not yet been declared over and, even if it has severely undermined the ability of the militants to attack the security forces, the tactic of lightning raids has not ended completely. The situation has normalised a great deal for the press, but only after a very difficult period in which many journalists in the Tribal Areas were literally under house arrest.
Despite all the trials of the past year, journalists in the Tribal Areas remain determined to defend press freedom. I am happy today that we have fulfilled our mission with success and that our fight has not been in vain. The journalists in the Tribal Zones are grateful to all those who provided support during this difficult time. It is only fair to mention Reporters Without Borders. Together, we can resist press freedom violations.
Tribal Zones, December 2004