Pakistan has been through a year of major political crisis which began in March 2007 with the sacking of the President of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, deepened with the 3 November declaration of emergency rule and culminated in December with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the historic leader of the leading opposition party. Pervez Musharraf’s reaction to this crisis only aggravated the situation. After unleashing a first wave of repression and censorship in April and May, the head of state at the start of November ordered a blackout of all independent television and radio stations.
The president and his ministers however constantly boasted of the “total freedom allowed to the Pakistani media”. In March, when several TV stations were censored for showing footage of demonstrations in favour of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, information minister Muhammad Ali Durrani told Reporters Without Borders that, “The government never banned the media from broadcasting these images. It was a decision of the Supreme Judicial Council. The media are close to our heart and no station has been censored”. The authorities in November rejected international condemnation of the ban on privately-owned broadcast media, claiming it was not censorship but a necessity to “save the nation”.
The political crisis prompted a craving for news among Pakistanis. Newspaper sales soared, particularly supplements devoted to the state of emergency, after the ban on private TV and radio. The Urdu service of the BBC World Service boosted the number of news bulletins while its programmes were pulled from Pakistan’s FM band after the army closed the FM 103 station. And although only 15% of Pakistanis are connected to the Internet, more than a million people visit the Geo TV website on a daily basis.
Silencing of privately-owned television and radio
The government in 2002 allowed the development of electronic media but did not create the conditions to guarantee their independence thus exposing them to daily and unfair harassment from some government officials and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). This authority abused its power on at least ten occasions to force cable operators to halt broadcasts by certain television stations.
The government, overwhelmed on all sides, at the end of May banned live broadcasts of news events. Information minister, Mohammad Ali Durrani, warned media not to cross the “legal limits”. As a result privately-owned stations Aaj and ARY TV were pulled from the cable package by operators in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. A manager at ARY TV told Reporters Without Borders that the government claimed not to know anything about it. “But when we call the cable operators they tells us that is it the government who asked them to do it”.
The government in June promulgated the PEMRA Amendment Ordinance 2007 to boost the regulatory body’s power of censorship and control over television stations and cable operators. It gave the PEMRA the right to seize TV equipment, to close installations and cancel licences for any violation of the law. Fines were also increased from one to ten million Rupees. The regulatory authority no longer even needed to go to the complaints council set up under a previous ordinance. Faced with an outcry, the government at first backed down, then took advantage of the 3 November state of emergency to impose the new measures.
On the day emergency rule was declared, Pervez Musharraf told PEMRA to halt broadcasts on all cable networks of all privately-owned regional and national TV stations, and in particular news channels. Only state-run PTV continued to broadcast. Mobile telephone communications in the capital were also subject to constant interruption.
The head of state amended the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance of 2002 and the PEMRA Ordinance of 2002. Under these amendments, it was totally forbidden to all media to broadcast footage or news about a suicide-bombing (the terrorist, his claims or the victims); to make remarks prejudicial to the ideology, sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan; to broadcast any news ridiculed the head of state, the army and institutions; or to refer to ongoing judicial proceedings.
On 15 November, international channels BBC and CNN were restored after being interrupted on 9 November, while covering the house arrest of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad. The previous evening they were able to get back on air for a few hours during which President Pervez Musharraf announced that elections would be held in February 2008. The government had in July prevented journalists from the US channel from entering the Red Mosque, after it put out a documentary called, “The threat within” on the presence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
Radio Mast FM 103 in Karachi was able to resume broadcasting on 6 November after accepting certain conditions: no national or international news or presidential election news and the BBC Urdu-language news bulletin was to come off air.
The federal government was enraged to see thousands of Pakistanis buying satellite dishes so that they could still watch privately-owned television, and on 13 November decided to make it more difficult to buy decoders, modulators and other equipment, making importers obtain permission from the PEMRA. The authorities also put pressure on the Dubai government to close Geo News and Ary One World, broadcasting from the emirate. The emir of Dubai ordered a halt to broadcasts on 17 November, but following an international outcry the two channels resumed broadcasting ten days later.
At the start of 2007, privately-owned channels had begun showing news programmes and talk shows which became more and more daring. The authorities applied political and financial pressure to try to stop the most troubling of them. In June, colourful television presenter Ali Saleem announced the end of his programme on Aaj because of “increasing government censorship”. He invited guests for interview in his “boudoir”, in which he appeared in drag. At the end of November, Aaj pulled its talk shows “Live With Talat” and "Bolta Pakistan".
Serious police brutality
As the crisis surrounding the sacking of the president of the Supreme Court gathered steam, journalists were frequently attacked and beaten up by the security forces. They also raided editorial offices, as on 16 March at the studios of Geo TV, in Islamabad, which had just shown footage of lawyers injured during a demonstration in support of Iftikar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Police wielding clubs in Islamabad injured at least 30 journalists on 29 September, in a bid to prevent them covering a crackdown on a demonstration by lawyers opposed to the candidature of Pervez Musharraf at the presidential elections. Journalists complained to the Supreme Court which ordered the government to suspend the chief of police and two officers, which order was carried out. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) declared 30 September to have been a “black day” and the Pakistani press called the incident, “The battle of Constitution Avenue”.
Brutality and raids against the media also accompanied the imposition of emergency rule. Members of PEMRA and about 30 police officers arrived at the offices of radio FM 103 in Islamabad on 3 November and seized broadcast equipment. Police surrounded the studios of Aaj television and radio FM 99 in the capital. Police arrested at least five photographers and cameramen in front of the Karachi Press Club on 5 November as they covered a demonstration by human rights activists. At the same time a correspondent for the BBC was arrested close to the home of a judge in Karachi. A police officer in Quetta tried to destroy a camera belonging to a reporter for Agence France-Presse who was covering a demonstration. And in Rawalpindi, police beat and insulted journalists covering a lawyers’ demonstration. Photo-reporter Muhammad Javed had two fingers broken by one officer, who also seized the memory chip of his camera.
The secret services also went after journalists, and even more aggressively. Eight agents arrested Shoaib Bhutta, editor of the Urdu-language Daily Tulou at his office in Islamabad in November. In two days of questioning, during which he was kept chained up and deprived of sleep, they quizzed him about why he was critical of the authorities. A few days later, Khurram Hashmi, of Aaj television suffered a brutal interrogation about the funding of the press protest movement against the state of emergency. He was beaten and threatened with reprisals before being released in Karachi. Secret service officers in Islamabad beat up Babar Malik, of the ARY TV in August. “If you break scandals, we can also break your arms and legs”, one of the soldiers told him, shortly after it broadcast a report by the journalist about the disappearance of Imran Munir, sentenced for spying by a military court.
Journalists campaign to defend their freedom
Journalists’ organisations, particularly the PFUJ, have also suffered official harassment. A lawsuit was started against nearly 200 journalists for defying a ban on protests after they held a press freedom rally on 4 June. The collective suit was withdrawn a few days later on the orders of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz after it was condemned in the press. Secretary General of the PFUJ, Mazhar Abbas, found an envelope containing a bullet in his car at the end of May.
During the November crisis, the principle media organisations - the PFUJ, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors, the Pakistan Broadcasters Association and the South Asia Free Media Association (whose director Imtiaz Alam had been held for one day) - joined together to fight the new laws and demonstrations drawing thousands of journalist defied the government.
Police in Karachi and Hyderabad arrested some 160 journalists on 20 November. One police officer said he had received the order to use force against journalists who were assembling near an official building. Around a dozen journalists were beaten.
Violence in the tribal areas
The few journalists who work in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, members of the Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ), were targeted by the Taliban and their Jihadist allies, but also by the authorities. The vice-president of the TUJ, Noor Hakim, a journalist on the Urdu-language daily Pakistan, was killed in a bombing in June in the tribal area of Bajaur in the north-west. Four other people died in the attack that was aimed at an official.
Foreign journalists are banned from going to the most turbulent regions, particularly Waziristan, while Pakistani reporters now hardly ever venture there. The most radical Islamists use illegal FM radios to broadcast calls for Jihad.
The case of Hayatullah Khan, a reporter from the tribal areas kidnapped and killed in 2006 had a further tragic twist when in November his widow was killed in a bombing at her home in Mir Ali in North Waziristan. The teacher had campaigned to condemn the kidnapping and murder of her husband. The journalist’s brother Ehsanullah Khan accused his brother’s killers of being behind the death of his widow. In the past he had accused members of the military secret services of taking part in the kidnapping of his brother, which the government has always denied. But the authorities have never made public the conclusions of the inquiry carried out by a judge in Peshawar in 2006, which identifies the killers. Ehsanullah Khan said that he informed the information minister, Muhammad Ali Durani, that the life of his brother’s widow was in danger, but the authorities did not take any steps to protect her.
Islamists in Waziristan killed four family members of Din Muhammad, a reporter for the newspaper Inkishaf, who had assisted a group of Pakistani correspondents working for the national and international press, to go to Wana, a town under the influence of Jihadist groups. Three other members of his family were kidnapped.
The home of Nasrullah Afridi, correspondent in the tribal areas for the Urdu-language daily Mashriq Khyber, was targeted in a grenade attack in May. Five days earlier, the head of the Jihadist group Lashkar-i-islam, Mangal Bagh, made a death threat against the journalist on the illegal FM radio that he runs. The journalist, who had already moved home because of similar threats, told Reporters Without Borders that “I am in fear for my life” and I will have to “leave the town”.
The army, which has proved unable to get on top of the situation, sometimes makes life difficult for local journalists. An officer in the Pakistani army insulted and threatened to kill Sailab Mehsud, correspondent for the newspaper The News and Al-Jazeera in Dera Ismail Khan, south of Peshawar, and editor of the website Karwan-e-Qabial (karwan-e-qabial.net). The former president of the TUJ had the previous evening broadcast news about a clash between the army and the Taliban in South Waziristan. “He introduced himself as a member of military intelligence based in Dera Ismail Khan. He insulted me and said I would disappear and future generations would never find me,” said Mehsud.
The offensive by Islamist groups was not limited to the tribal areas. A religious leader at the Red Mosque pronounced a fatwa in June against, among others, Zubair Kasuri, editor of the fashion magazine Octane, for publishing series of photos captioned “Adam and Eve, the apple of discord”. Police in Islamabad made a “blasphemy” complaint against the magazine. Then, in July, the presenter on a talk show on state-run PTV, received death threats from extremist students after broadcasting an interview with the former imam at the Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, wearing a woman’s burka, in which he had disguised himself to escape the besieged mosque.
Suicide bombers posed serious threats to the safety of journalists, particularly photographers and cameramen, who have to closely follow political figures. A young freelance photo-journalist, Mehboob Khan, was killed in this way in April during a suicide attack against the interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao. Four other journalists were wounded. The cameraman Muhammad Arif of privately-owned ARY TV, was one of the 133 victims of the suicide-bombing of the cortege of former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto in Karachi on 18 October.
Kidnappings and censorship in Balochistan
Pakistani security forces fighting separatism in Balochistan, in the south-west, secretly detained many civilians there, including journalists. The secret services in August released Munir Mengal, director of the channel Baloch Voice, after holding him secretly for more than 16 months. But police immediately sent him to prison for 30 days in Khudzar, Balochistan province under the Maintenance of Public Order. “How can he threaten public order when he is already in the hands of the security forces?” asked one journalist reporting on the case. After so many months in the hands of the military he was “weak and suffering from unexplained illnesses.”
Javed Lehri, of the Urdu-language daily Azadi, based in Quetta, in Balochistan province is disappeared since November. One colleague who request anonymity, told Reporters Without Borders, “Even if Javed Lehri belonged to an opposition political party, his disappearance seems much more likely to be linked to his journalistic work”. Editor of the paper considered that secret services agents were behind his disappearance. Javed Lehri had just done a report on a political party rally against the assassination of Akbar Bugti, the head of the Balochistan National party.
Riaz Mengal, of the newspaper Intikhab based in Khuzdar, was kidnapped on 5 October. Before his disappeared he had written articles about a car-ringing gang. “Riaz had received death threats after his reports His life was in danger”, one Balochistan journalist told Reporters Without Borders. He managed to escape from his captors on 25 November.
It is in the rural areas - dominated by a quasi-feudal system - which the henchmen of politicians go after the press in the most brutal ways. For example, six men armed with Kalashnikovs on 17 June killed Nasir Ahmed Solangi, correspondent for the Sindhi-language Khabroon in Kingri, Sind province. A colleague, Khan Muhammad, told Reporters Without Borders that “Solangi had received death threats two days before the murder from the Junejo tribe which was furious about his reporting”. One of his colleagues rebutted the official theory that he had been killed for ethnic reasons. “He was killed because of his work,” the journalist said.
Also in Sind, Zubair Ahmed Mujahid, correspondent for the national daily Jang in Mirpur Khas district was shot dead on 23 November, by an unknown attacker on a motorbike. “My brother was killed because of the critical articles he wrote, including on the state of the poor in our region,” his older brother Muhammad Iftikhar said. The experienced correspondent for Jang wrote a weekly column “Crime and punishment” in which he often exposed landowners and police officers. “Our family had no family conflicts (...) My brother wrote articles about the plight of the poor, which were aimed of course at influential people,” said Iftikar.