New York, Feb. 14, 2000—When the democratically elected leader of Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was deposed last October by a military coup, few independent journalists regretted his sudden departure. Now, in a special report released today, the Committee to Protect Journalists details the brutal tactics used by the Sharif administration to curb dissent and explains why many journalists felt that democracy in Pakistan was endangered long before the coup. The report also raises concerns about the future of press freedom in Pakistan under the military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, despite his promises to respect civil liberties.
The story of the Pakistani press over the past year is a tale of independent journalists in a very flawed democracy continuing to publish in the face of oppressive tactics aimed at censoring and controlling the press.
The report, written by CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Kavita Menon, is largely the result of a research mission she conducted over the course of two weeks last fall‹a mission she completed just three days before the coup.
The report explains how, in a country in which the prime minister systematically undermined nearly all democratic institutions–he engineered the dismissal of the chief justice, forced a president to resign, compelled an army chief to step down, and packed the courts and bureaucracy with loyalists‹elements of the press remained vigorous and aggressive, sometimes providing the only check on what was becoming increasingly unbridled power.
One senior correspondent for the Islamabad edition of the English-language daily, The News, told CPJ before the coup: “The Pakistani press has in fact replaced what think tanks and political parties in other countries would do.”
Former Prime Minister Sharif exerted control over much of the Pakistani press by rewarding journalists who heeded government demands while punishing those who did not toe the line. For example, the Jang Group, Pakistan’s largest newspaper publishing company, came under intense pressure from the Sharif regime. The company was hit with crippling taxes, its newsprint supplies were blocked by the government, and many of its senior reporters and editors were harassed and threatened by government agents.
The government made an example of the Jang Group, demonstrating its power to bring a publishing giant to its knees‹and then tried the same with Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly The Friday Times. In May of 1999, Sethi was abducted from his home in the middle of the night, beaten, and held incommunicado for a week, then finally released after being held nearly a month without charge.
“The government’s persecution of Sethi” writes Menon, “was a signal that it would not spare anyone.” One journalist told her the government was “trying to force a purge in the media of all liberal elements” by using Sethi as an example. Sethi and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher of The Friday Times, were honored with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award last November. [For more details about the I.P.F. awards, click here.]
But, concludes the report, “One of the most serious miscalculations of Sharif’s career was that these actions drew attention to his autocratic tendencies . . . Over time, press reports on the prime minister’s political errors, personal corruption, and abuses of power undermined his popular support.”
The question now is how the independent press will fare, having survived Sharif. Will it be cowed into submission under yet another military dictatorship, or will it continue to call the powerful to account?