Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) today voiced deep concern about instructions issued by the Pakistani government on 2 November warning news media not to use or quote from reports published by the South Asia Tribune, a Washington-based online newspaper run by a Pakistani journalist living in exile in the United States.
In a letter to Information Minister Nisar A. Memon, Reporters Without Borders described the ban as another attempt to hurt the South Asia Tribune’s editor, Shaheen Sehbai, who left Pakistan after being threatened by General Musharraf’s military government.
Reporters Without Borders also deplored the fact that, in this warning, the government threatened journalists with the application of a new defamation law, which the organisation on 4 October had described as a "sword of Damocles" hanging over independent and opposition journalists. Finally, it called on the government to stop harassing Sehbai, his family and the colleagues who support him, and to withdraw the 2 November ban.
The ban was issued in the form of a special announcement which the information ministry placed in the main Pakistani newspapers. It warned the news media that by reproducing the South Asia Tribune’s reports, they could expose themselves to prosecution under the law against defamation that took effect on 1 October. Under this law, journalists convicted of defamation risk up to three months imprisonment and a fine of Rupees 50,000 (Euro 850), and may be ordered to publish an apology.
Formerly editor of The News daily newspaper, Sehbai left Pakistan in March for the United States and in July launched the South Asia Tribune. Many of its stories implicating the Pakistani military authorities in corruption and human rights abuses have been quoted by the press in Pakistan. The information ministry’s announcement did not mention Sehbai or his newspaper by name, but referred to "a self-exiled Pakistani journalist" who is fabricating reports intended "to malign the Government of Pakistan and its senior functionaries."
Since leaving Pakistan, Sehbai has continued to be the victim of intrigue. An accusation of "burglary" was filed against him by an army employee, and two relatives have been arrested. Journalists close to him have also been threatened by the ISI (the secret service) for having spoken out in his defence.