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Home > Reading Room > Media crisis deepens in Pakistan

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Media crisis deepens in Pakistan

By Gwendolyn Mariano

Despite the peaceful mountain peaks of the Himalayas in the north and the calm shores of the Arabian Sea in the south, Pakistan is nothing close to serenity.

In the latest saga over media restrictions in Pakistan, more than 100 journalists who protested against President Pervez Musharraf’s ban on TV and radio news stations were arrested Nov. 20 according to recent eyewitness reports to the BBC.

The journalists planned to demonstrate peacefully as part of a organized country-wide protest outside one of the news outlets that had been banned. Police, armed with batons, ended up beating a number of journalists, causing injuries to some, particularly one journalist who suffered from head wounds, according to reports.

The arrests come on the heels of the release of thousands of political detainnes, including lawyers, who were jailed under emergency rule. Pakistan’s election commission also announced a general election will be held Jan. 8.

Musharraf, who is reported on route to Saudi Arabia to hold talks with King Abdullah, had declared emergency rule Nov. 3.

“Media has become a victim of the Emergency Rule,” said BBC Urdu Editor Shahzeb Jillani in an interview posted to the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) website.

International media response

Media organizations, including Reporters Without Borders and the Coalition of Pakistani Journalists in the United States, condemned the police brutality against the journalists and called for the immediate release of those detained.

The journalists are currently being held in the southern Pakistani cities of Karachi and Hyderabad.

"While the government boasts of having freed thousands of political activists and lawyers arrested since November 3, police in Karachi are brutally arresting more than 150 journalists," Reporters Without Borders said. “The state of emergency cannot be used to justify gratuitous violence which causes serious harm to Pakistan's international image.”

When notable journalists Shamim-ur-Rehman, president of the Karachi journalists' union, and Sabih Uddin Ghousi, president of the Karachi press club, were arrested in the street, at least 140 journalists then took refuge in the press club, which was quickly surrounded by the security forces, Reporters Without Borders said.

Huma Ali Shah, president of Pakistan Federation of Unions of Journalists, painted a bleaker picture.

The journalists were “going for a meeting with the Sindh governor when police baton-charged them and chased them into the press club,” Shah told New Delhi-based Indo-Asian News Service (IANS). “We are trying to get the exact numbers but there are more than 100 journalists who have arrested by the police in Karachi.”

IANS also reported that police grabbed some female journalists, even one who was with her one-year-old child.

Pulling the plug

When Musharraf tried to oust the country’s chief justice earlier this year, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry refused to budge. For weeks, Pakistan was riveted by the conflict. The country’s popular, privately-owned television stations reported on the showdown, debated the merits of each man’s positions and covered the street demonstrations that helped return Chaudhry to the Pakistan Supreme Court.

That was July.

In early November, Musharraf again targeted the country’s judiciary by declaring a state of emergency. This time though, he pulled the plug on many of the country’s main sources of news. Cable television operators were ordered to yank private TV stations off the air. FM news stations, including the BBC’s Urdu language service, were shut down.

Reporters soon became a prime target. Police in Rawalpindi, for instance, broke the fingers of a news photographer and stole his digital camera’s memory chip. And the owner of Geo, a popular TV station, was threatened by the ISI, the country’s intelligence agency.

Calling the press “irresponsible” and filled with “negativity,” Musharraf created onerous rules for journalists.

New regulations set up by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority prevent broadcasters from reporting or commenting on the country’s efforts at fighting terrorism, the judiciary or criticizing Pervez Musharraf, Jillani said.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Press Information Department (PID) is keeping tabs on the country’s 34 daily newspapers. According to a story by Reporters Without Borders, PID is supposed to send a report at 4 p.m. every day to the head of the ministry’s Home Publicity department.

Pakistanis, who are hungry for news, are doing their best to get it. Geo TV and Aaj TV, both of which are based in Dubai, continue to broadcast via satellite and are streaming their signals online. However, only about 15 percent of Pakistanis have Internet access. For those who do, it’s often sluggish, which is why Geo TV is updating its site with text. A BBC News article says traffic is up at the websites of Pakistani newspapers such as The News and Dawn and specialty sites like Global Voices Online and SAJA.

Despite the threats, Dawn’s editor doesn’t plan to back down.

”We are not in the business of ridicule, we are in the business of reporting the facts,” Abbas Nasir told The Guardian. “And if the facts make someone look ridiculous, so be it.”

Gwendolyn Mariano is a freelance journalist and member of SPJ’s International Committee. Todd Melby contributed to this report.
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