Pakistan media in General’s crosshairs

by Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistam, March 28, 2007 – After enjoying relative freedom under the eight-year-old regime of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, independent media groups are suddenly finding themselves in a hostile environment marked by raids and denial of government advertisements.

On March16 television audiences in Pakistan were stunned when cameras panned from lawyers demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court in Islamabad, against the March 9 suspension of Pakistan’s chief justice, to a police raid on the nearby premises of GEO Television.

Widely-aired footage showed policemen smashing furniture and glass panes and roughing up the staff of GEO TV and ‘The News’ newspaper both of which are owned by the Jang Group, a leading media conglomerate in Pakistan.

Musharraf later apologised to Hamid Mir, the Islamabad bureau chief of GEO TV and ordered the suspension of 14 policemen and an inquiry into the raid — which, he claimed, took place without his knowledge.  Mir was not buying. ‘’Clearly, the channel and the newspaper were targeted for their outspoken and candid coverage of the crisis arising out of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan,’ an editorial in The News said on March 17.

”This (the police attack) is a sabotage of whatever we stand for or whatever we are doing,” the uniformed President said publicly. ‘’The main strength of my reforms is freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of media. This is our mandate.”  But Musharraf’s claim rang hollow because the government has been employing other methods to curb press freedom.

On Friday Haroon Hamid, publisher of the Karachi-based Dawn Group of newspapers, distributed a letter (read it here) charging Musharraf of becoming ‘’increasingly intolerant toward criticism in the press and toward the publishing of news that reflects poorly on the performance of his government on security matters.”

Hamid said in his letter that the Dawn Group was being penalised by the government through the withdrawal government advertising. ”Since December 2006, the Dawn Group is facing massive advertising cuts equivalent to two-thirds of total government advertising,” his letter said.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed concern over ‘’business retaliation and outright attacks on media companies’ in Pakistan.   ”We are very concerned by threats to the independent Pakistani press,” said CPJ executive director Joel Simon. ”When the government pulls advertising and holds up licenses, it sends the unmistakable signal that it wants critical coverage to be toned down.”

Events following chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry’s suspension seemed to expose Musharraf’s ‘customised democracy’ and bring into public glare the reality of an authoritarian regime in  which individual journalists have been ‘disappeared’, held incommunicado, intimidated, roughed up and even killed for reporting on sensitive issues.

According to the South Asia Media Monitor’s report for 2006, Pakistan topped the list of countries in he region where journalists were killed in line of duty.  Other means of coercion include denial of government advertisements and newsprint to publishing houses or sending in unofficial ‘advice’ to tone down coverage.

‘’Anything can happen and it adds to the progressive sense of insecurity one feels,” said  Syed Talat Hussain, who heads the current affairs programmes on AAJ TV, a private channel that was among the three that were made to go off air by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), allegedly for telecasting news and comments on the presidential reference.

”There is tremendous pressure on the media and sometimes it becomes difficult to take an independent line,’ said Hussain.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based military and political analyst, refuses to believe the conspiracy theorists who say the attack was ‘engineered’. ”The police cannot attack a private TV channel office without orders from the higher authorities. It seems that there are hardliners in the establishment and the intelligence agencies who wanted to ‘sort out’ the press people by creating an example,” he says.

”The attack threatens both civil and political rights and underlines the fragility of democracy,” he adds. ”The government is perturbed by the current protest because it has faced such a situation for the first time. The government will find it difficult to pursue a hard line against the lawyers and others. This protest has the potential to become a nationwide agitation and create an extremely difficult situation for the government in an election year.”

Many see the removal of Choudhry as an attempt by Musharraf  to ensure his re-election while retaining his role as chief of the armed forces.

Pakistan’s planned elections hold huge international interest.  In a letter sent to the general, four members of the U.S. Senate have urged him to have an ”open and vigorous debate” about the political future of Pakistan and to show the international community that the 2007 elections will be a ”true expression of democracy”.

They also called for protection for press and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). ”Recent months have seen reports of official abuse and harassment of journalists and NGO workers, both Pakistani and foreign. We urge you to issue explicit public instructions to all members of Pakistani security and intelligence community to cease harassing journalists and government critics û and to punish any officials guiltyà”

On the positive side the present conformation has steeled Pakistani media. ”For years it was brutalised, but today I see that it has come of age. It put up a good fight but best of all, the fraternity came together. In future it will become increasingly difficult for the government to suppress it,” Sabihuddin Ghausi, president of the Karachi Press Club, told IPS. (IPS)