Mr. Mohammad Ali Durrani
Minister of Information
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Paris, 29 March 2007
We would like to share with you our astonishment about your comments on the situation of press freedom in Pakistan. According to the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency, you said at a meeting with provincial ministers on 27 March in Islamabad that Pakistan had become a free media model in South Asia. While it is true the authorities have permitted the creation of privately-owned TV stations in recent years, Pakistan is far from being a model.
How can you claim this when recent weeks have been marked by grave acts of censorship and violence against independent media? The president and you did indeed express regret about the police violence, but what measures have you taken to ensure that privately-owned television stations will finally be able to work freely?
Your reassuring comments have been made at a time when one of Pakistan’s leading media groups, the Dawn Group of Newspapers, is being subjected to shocking commercial and legal harassment.
The Pakistani government has imposed a drastic cutback in the amount of state advertising placed with the Dawn Group of Newspapers since December. Dawn’s management estimates that more than two thirds of state announcements have been suppressed.
Under Pakistani law, state advertising is supposed to be distributed fairly on the basis of such criteria as newspaper circulation, but the Dawn daily newspaper, The Star and the Herald have been the victims of targeted sanctions.
The reasons for this advertising boycott are unfortunately known, as they were spelled out by no less a person than Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to the group’s chief executive, Hameed Haroon. The aim is to punish or rather to rein in the Dawn Group of Newspapers because of its investigative reporting on the security situation in the province of Balochistan and in the Tribal Areas.
Before introducing this punitive policy, your government used the services of the provincial government of Sindh, where the Dawn group has its headquarters, to try to tone down its reporting. Reporters Without Borders criticised the Sindh government’s manoeuvring at that time, and the attempts of the security forces to implicate journalists working for The Star in the illegal possession of firearms.
Government officials approached senior Dawn executives in 2005 and 2006 and asked then to restrict their coverage of events in the Tribal Areas and Balochistan. Several reports in Dawn and the Herald on the government’s war on terrorism and the situation in Kashmir had elicited sharp reactions in Pakistan and abroad. The group’s refusal to change its editorial policies led the government to impose its sanctions in order to undermine its financial situation.
The government also broke its promise to grant the Dawn group a licence to operate a TV channel, despite a Sindh high court ruling. Mr. Haroon told Reporters Without Borders he had a conversation with the prime minister in December 2005 in which the prime minister undertook to grant him a TV channel licence.
The government has indeed allowed the broadcast media to develop in Pakistan but a lot remains to be done to guarantee their independence. Arbitrary pressure is constantly being exercised by certain government officials and the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Just recently, the PEMRA forced two TV stations to censor themselves.
As long as the PEMRA is able to force cable and satellite TV operators to suspend the transmission of any TV channel by a simple verbal order, the broadcast media sector will not be able to develop properly. The TV regulatory system adopted by the government is not at all model. It is vital that the PEMRA should become independent of any political or governmental interference.
Independent news radio stations are virtually non-existent in Pakistan while many of them exist in Afghanistan and Nepal. As for television, India is much more advanced. All this is far from making Pakistan a free media model.
Many journalists and media executives have said the print and broadcast media continue to be subjected to considerable pressure from the government. This was manifestly the case during the protests against the supreme court president’s removal.
During your recent meeting in Islamabad, you also said the government was working to facilitate the free movement of foreign journalists. This is excellent news. We hope that visiting foreign correspondents and resident reporters will be able to travel around Pakistan without restriction. And that the Pakistani journalists who work for them will no longer be subjected to threats and violence by the security forces.
Respect for press freedom is assessed on the basis of actions and not words. Pakistani journalists and media owners are aware of the price they have had to pay for their independence. More than ever, your government now has a duty to respect the undertakings it has given. Our organisation will hail any progress that is made.
If you would really like Pakistan to become a model, the first thing you should do is put a stop to the harassment of the Dawn group.
Trusting in your commitment to press freedom, we think you should also move quickly to create the conditions for the PEMRA finally to be independent, and for the violence against journalists to stop.
We look forward to your reply.