An explosion in the number of independent TV channels boosted pluralism and the quality of news. But the security forces radicalised their methods of repression: a score of journalists were kidnapped and tortured by the military. The situation is worst of all in the tribal areas.
The murder of reporter Hayatullah Khan in the tribal areas in June 2006 provoked an unprecedented wave of protests across the country. The correspondent for Pakistani and foreign media in the very troubled Waziristan area had been kidnapped several months previously by armed men, apparently belonging to military secret services. The case underlined the brutality of security forces towards journalists who take too close an interest in what goes on in the tribal areas and in Baluchistan. Under pressure, the government set up two investigative commissions but has never made their conclusions public.
In 2006, at least ten other journalists were kidnapped by security forces, sometimes held for a few hours only, but often in very harsh conditions. Mukesh Rupeta and Sanjay Kumar of Geo TV were held by military secret services from March to June after being arrested for filming an air base used by the US Army. After their release, Mukesh Rupeta said, “Those who detained us seemed to be secret agents. When they were beating me, I wondered if I was a Pakistani in their eyes”. Likewise, Mehruddin Marri, of the Sindhi language daily Kawish, said that after being held for three months by the military, “I received blows and electric shocks. I fainted. Then, they stopped me from sleeping for three nights”. Before his release a soldier warned him, “Never defy the state and the secret services”.
Soldiers were also implicated in the arrest in April of Munir Mengal, one of the promoters of a Baluchi language TV Baloch Voice, in Karachi, southern Pakistan. His family had to wait until December before they were allowed to see him in a military detention centre. Dilawar Khan, a journalist for the BBC and the daily Dawn was kidnapped and threatened for several hours in November. His brother had been killed in unexplained circumstances in Waziristan in August.
Another journalist, Munir Sangi of the privately-owned Kawish Television Network (KTN) was killed in Larkana, south-east Pakistan in May 2006. The suspects, who were arrested by police, were believed to be acting on the orders of a local politician.
The very few journalists based in the tribal areas in Baluchistan are caught in the crossfire between security forces, jihadist militants and tribal chiefs. Some imams and Taliban chiefs used their clandestine FM radios to relay propaganda and to call for reprisals against journalists. The majority of these illegal stations have been closed by the federal government. In November, the Taliban kidnapped the son of a journalist in North Waziristan and stopped distribution of newspapers for two days after the press published an inaccurate article. “The Taliban accuse us of being spies and the authorities and the army do not allow us to work freely” said one of the leaders of the Tribal Union of Journalists.
The Pakistani and international press have been regularly kept away from the border area with Afghanistan. In January, two reporters from Peshawar were arrested while travelling in the Bajaur region where a village had just been bombarded by the US Army. It was also near Bajaur that five journalists were arrested and beaten in November while covering demonstrations linked to the bombing of a madrasa by the army.
Harassment and threats remain the preferred methods of the security services. Reporters Without Borders recorded more than 40 such cases in 2006. For example, Mushtaq Ghuman of the Business Recorder, received phoned threats while he was working on an article embarrassing for the prime minister. At the end of December, journalist Carlotta Gall of the New York Times and her Pakistani fixer Akhtar Soomro were assaulted and threatened by the secret services while they were reporting in Quetta, western Pakistan. These methods prompted leading investigative journalist Amir Mir to refuse to accept a professional prize which was due to have been personally presented to him by President Pervez Musharraf. The head of state’s services have just drawn up a list of 30 editorialists and journalists “to turn” in a bid to ease criticism in the press.
Broadcast media under strict surveillance
Privately-owned television has considerably contributed to an improvement in quality and pluralism of news and information. But they have also faced obstacles. In September, police forced cable operators in Punjab province, eastern Pakistan, to stop putting out programmes by ARY TV which had just broadcast footage of police officers attacking three journalists. In November, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned cable and satellite operators from putting out privately-owned Sindh TV. After a series of negotiations, PEMRA authorised resumption of programmes two weeks later. PEMRA also banned in March the broadcasting in Baluchistan of Afghan channels Tolo TV and Ariana TV, accused of spreading “poisonous and aggressive language towards Pakistan”.
Radio stations also found their operations were hampered. In August, PEMRA refused to renew the licence of Mast FM 103, set up in Balakot to assist people in the regions affected by the 2005 earthquake. In November, the same radio lost a case against PEMRA, in which it was asking for the right to relay Urdu programmes from the BBC World Service.
Pakistan had its first cases of Internet censorship in February 2006. The Pakistan Communications Authority (PTA) blocked 12 websites which reproduced the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. Two months later the PTA censored five websites on the grounds that they contained “misleading information”. In July, Pakistan’s Internet blacklist was again extended to take in 30 new addresses, most of them linked to the Baluchistan nationalist movement, whose supporters have been fighting the army for several years to obtain their independence. In order to stop access to blogs linked to the Baluchis or Hindu extremists, the PTA for several weeks blocked all publications hosted by blogger.com.