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Pakistan 17 April 2008

Open letter to Prime Minister Gillani urging 10 steps to improve press freedom

Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter yesterday to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani hailing a bill introduced by his government in the national assembly to repeal repressive amendments to a 2002 broadcast media law that were decreed by President Pervez Musharraf on 3 November 2007.

"This is a victory for the editorial freedom of the TV and radio stations that were the target of many sanctions and attacks by the previous government," the organisation wrote.

Among the draconian amendments to the PEMRA 2002 broadcast media law that would be repealed by the new bill, introduced by information minister Sherry Rehman on 11 April, is a provision for sentences of up to three years in prison for journalists who defame or make fun of the president.

Reminding the new prime minister that he holds a masters in journalism and that his government has voiced support for press freedom, the letter proposes the following 10-point plan for achieving a lasting improvement in the situation of press freedom.

1. Repeal the RPPO 2002 ordinances restricting the editorial freedom of the print media which were also adopted last November.

2. Reform the operational methods of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which is currently run by former police officers. The PEMRA must grant terrestrial broadcast licences to independent TV stations, guarantee the editorial independence of TV and radio stations and stop harassing cable TV operators.

3. Release imprisoned journalists Rehmat Shah Afridi, the former editor of the Frontier Post newspaper, and Munir Mengal, one of the initiators of the Baloch Voice TV station. Two other journalists from Balochistan are missing and the reasons for their abduction are unknown. It is important to locate them and ensure that their rights as citizens are respected.

4. Introduce training for the police, army and the intelligence agencies (including the ISI) on the importance of the work of the media, in order to avoid further violence against journalists, especially during demonstrations. At least 30 journalists were seriously injured in 2007 and more that 120 were arrested.

5. Award financial compensation to journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, beaten or otherwise harassed by the security forces and to the families of those who were killed in 2007 and early 2008.

6. Provide for the protection of news media that are threatened by terrorist groups.

7. Withdraw all the unjustified complaints and lawsuits brought by the police and government against dozens of journalists and free speech activists in recent years.

8. Combat impunity by creating a Task Force to investigate the murders of journalists that have taken place in recent years. Six journalists were killed in 2007 without any of these murders being solved. Pakistan has become the most dangerous country for journalists in Asia.

9. Release the report of the investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Tribal Areas journalist Hayatullah Khan in 2006.

10. Turn state-owned PTV into an independent public television service. Monitoring of PTV’s broadcasts by Reporters Without Borders during the elections showed a clear bias in favour of the ruling party.

"Both the repressive policies of the previous governments and terrorist actions have resulted in a very disturbing deterioration in the situation of press freedom," the letter says. "Pakistan was ranked 152nd out of 169 countries in the 2007 world press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders."

The letter concludes: "We are aware that the task you face is enormous, but we hope that your convictions will lead you to make it a priority to strengthen press freedom. Our organisation also hopes that you will give your personal attention to these matters and that you will encourage your government to consolidate a climate in which journalists can work freely and without fear."

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