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Pakistan 9 September 2002

Pakistani journalists in uproar over new press laws

Reporters Without Borders today endorsed the objections being voiced by Pakistani journalists to three new ordinances on the press and called on the government to revise them. Adopted by the government on 31 August, the ordinances increase the penalties for defamation, impose a system of prior authorisation for the news media, and create a press council under the government’s thumb. A new law on press freedom, which had been expected, was not however adopted.

"Although always quick to voice support for the principle of press freedom, the Pakistani government, without heed to yet another contradiction, is once again digging its grave", Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to Information Minister Aziz Memom. Ménard said the organisation fully supported the Pakistani press mobilisation against the new laws and urged the government to revise them in consultation with the country’s press bodies.

The organisation also called for the press to be accorded open access to government documents which are currently subject to very restrictive classification that makes them inaccessible and impedes investigative journalism.

Pakistan’s main press organisations have been unanimous in their condemnation of the three ordinances, which the information ministry has so far refused to publish in full and has only released extracts. The All-Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) have all raised their voices against the new regulations, deeming them to have breached agreements they had reached with the government.

On 23 July, the government had given the APNS and CPNE an undertaking to amend the pending ordinances in order to exclude government appointees from the press council and limit fines for defamation to a maximum of $800. However, the ordinances finally adopted stipulate that several members of the council, including its president, are appointed by the government and that the penalties for defamation range from a minimum of $800 to prison sentences. Furthermore, the topics governed by the new law are taken from an old press code that bans any vilification of "friendly nations" or infringement of "decency" - the vaguest of terms that give the authorities too much latitude and lend themselves to arbitrary implementation.

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