Attacks on the Press 1999: Pakistan

Former Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to muzzle the press, and bring the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government under his personal control, earned him the reputation of a tyrant and badly discredited Pakistan’s democracy. His slide toward authoritarianism ended abruptly with a bloodless coup on October 12, in which army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf took power. General Musharraf immediately declared himself “a firm believer in the freedom of the press,” but made a sobering reference to the press’s duty to “play a positive and constructive role.” (See special report: “Pakistan: The Press for Change.)

Sharif began the year by intensifying a government crackdown on the Jang Group of Newspapers, the country’s largest newspaper publishing company. Journalists working for the company’s flagship papers —Jang, the country’s largest-circulation Urdu-language daily, and The News, an influential English-language national newspaper–reported being harassed by intelligence agents and receiving anonymous threats. The government demanded that the Jang Group’s publisher, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, dismiss or demote more than a dozen senior journalists whose names appeared on a government- compiled blacklist.

When the Jang Group did not comply with the orders, it was hit with a series of tax evasion cases, its bank accounts were frozen, and its supplies of newsprint were impounded. By early February, Jang and The News were each running skeleton editions of just four pages, down from an average of around two dozen pages. After the publisher held closed-door talks with senior government officials, the crisis passed. But within the newsroom, there remained an air of uncertainty. “There’s a hanging sword on our necks,” Anjum Rashid, a senior editor of Jang‘s Lahore edition, told CPJ. “So we are behaving.”

The actions against the press were part of a larger campaign to eliminate dissent. Sharif also tried to block opposition demonstrations, and targeted thousands of non-governmental organizations for closure. On April 16, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was ordered to stop publishing its quarterly HRCP Newsletter. The ban was illegal, based on a lapsed ordinance, and the newsletter continued to publish.

In May, authorities targeted several journalists who had worked with a BBC television team investigating government corruption–including Najam Sethi, editor of the English-language political weekly The Friday Times, published in Lahore. Sethi was imprisoned on May 8, held for nearly a month without charge, and accused of being a spy for India (the neighboring countries have fought each other in three wars, and came to the brink of a fourth when fighting in the disputed territory of Kashmir intensified sharply at the end of May).

Even after he was freed, Sethi continued to be harassed by authorities. More than two dozen cases of tax evasion were filed against him immediately after his release, and he was placed on Pakistan’s Exit Control List, preventing him from traveling abroad. And on July 15, a member of parliament from Prime Minister Sharif’s ruling Muslim League party, submitted a petition to have Sethi barred from voting or standing for elected office on the grounds that he did not “fulfill the requirements of a Muslim” and had spoken against the “ideology of Pakistan.” On November 23, CPJ honored Sethi and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin (publisher of The Friday Times), with its International Press Freedom Award.

There were also abuses of power at the local level. In July, criminal charges were filed against three journalists from the Karachi-based weekly magazine Pakistan News for “publishing a provocative article having serious sectarian implications.” In North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, journalists reporting on Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia faced threats from Pakistani police and intelligence agents, as well as from local agents of the Taliban. Afghan journalists, who, as refugees, have no legal protection in Pakistan, were particularly vulnerable to harassment.

In a measure of how bad things were under Sharif, many reporters and editors who had been harassed by the former administration reported feeling more secure with a military government in place. Musharraf, who led Pakistan’s fourth military coup in as many decades, made a concerted effort to avoid being seen as a military dictator. Calling himself the country’s “chief executive,” Musharraf declared, “This is not martial law, only another path towards democracy.” The general did, however, suspend the constitution, and abolish the national and provincial legislatures. He allowed the judiciary to function on the condition that courts “shall not have the powers to make any order against the Chief Executive or any person exercising powers or jurisdiction under his authority.”

At least two incidents seemed to belie the Musharraf regime’s promise to respect press freedom. Days after the military takeover, Ghulam Hasnain, a free-lancer working for the American weekly newsmagazine Time, discovered that his name had been placed on the Exit Control List, apparently because of his reporting on Kashmir. His name was removed from the list after Time protested the action in an editor’s letter published in its October 25 Asia edition.

On October 21, a truckload of soldiers visited the Lahore offices of Mazdoor Jeddojuhd (“Worker’s Struggle”), the weekly paper of the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP). The paper’s October 19 edition featured an “appeal to the working masses to fight against the military dictatorship,” according to a statement released by the LPP after the incident. Officers questioned the staff about why the paper had published material against the military, asked for information about the paper’s owner and its printing press, and left with several copies of the paper.

But the press overall was operating freely at year’s end. While there was a marked tendency toward self-censorship, some journalists still aired frank criticism of the new administration’s policies.

January 28
Kamran Khan, The News HARASSED

State intelligence agents visited the home of Khan, Karachi-based investigations editor for the English-language daily The News. The message was that he “must behave because they knew well about my movements and activities,” Khan told CPJ. The agents identified themselves as members of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), which under civilian governments reports directly to the prime minister.

Khan’s sources apparently confirmed that the IB was tapping his phone calls, and that transcripts of his conversations were provided to the government’s Accountability Bureau to “dig [for] some weak points.” Under Prime Minister Sharif’s government, the Accountabil- ity Bureau was an agency ostensibly set up to investigate corruption but regularly used to target Sharif’s political opponents.

On February 1, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif noting that the actions against Khan appeared to be part of the administration’s broader campaign against journalists working for publications of the Jang newspaper group, which includes The News.

January 29
Maleeha Lodhi,

Lodhi, editor of the English-language daily The News‘ Islamabad edition, received a series of anonymous phone calls threatening that she would be killed and that her house would be blown up. Lodhi documented the threats in a January 30 letter to Interior Minister Chaudhry Shujat Hussain.

Lodhi had previously served as ambassador to the United States under former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and was politically at odds with the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. According to CPJ’s sources, the threats were related to Lodhi’s journalistic work, which was highly critical of the Sharif administration. The administration had applied tremendous pressure on the Jang newspaper group, of which The News is a part, to dismiss Lodhi and replace her with someone more sympathetic to the government.

In a February 1 letter to Prime Minister Sharif, CPJ noted that the threats against Lodhi appeared to be related to the administration’s broader campaign against journalists working for publications of the Jang newspaper group.

February 1

Mir, a Lahore-based special correspondent with the investigative unit of the national daily The News and a frequent contributor to the monthly magazine Newsline and the weekly The Friday Times, told CPJ that he was being investigated by the government because of his reports on official corruption.

In February, Mir was told by a source in the government’s Accountability Bureau–an agency ostensibly set up to investigate corruption but regularly used by the administration to target political opponents–that his phones were being tapped, and that the bureau was collecting a file on him.

Mir had written numerous articles exposing corruption and mismanagement in both Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s administration and that of his brother Shahbaz Sharif, then-chief minister of Punjab Province. Mir had also written several pieces about the suspicious financial dealings of Sen. Saif-ur-Rehman, head of the Accountability Bureau. Saif-ur-Rehman is believed to have orchestrated Sharif’s harassment campaign against independent journalists in Pakistan.

Mir said that while he had grown accustomed to receiving anonymous threats over the phone, the frequency of such calls increased in the spring. “The callers have never identified themselves, and they never will. However, the messages they convey and the language they use clearly indicates that they are all doing this on government’s behalf,” Mir told CPJ. He said the most common threat he received was the warning that if he didn’t “stop writing against the Prime Minister, his brother and Saif-ur-Rehman, we will break your legs.”

Mir also said that he was being routinely followed by agents from the Intelligence Bureau. Under civilian governments, the head of the IB reports directly to the prime minister.

February 1
Jang Group of Newspapers HARASSED, CENSORED

Officials from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) impounded supplies of newsprint bound for the Jang Group of Newspapers’ Rawalpindi headquarters. This was the latest salvo in a months-long feud between the administration and the Jang Group, Pakistan’s largest newspaper publishing company.

The move came just hours after a ruling in the Jang Group’s favor by the Supreme Court, ordering the government to allow the immediate delivery of newsprint to the company, which said its newsprint stocks were virtually depleted. The Supreme Court’s order was delivered on the first day of hearings in a case filed by the Jang Group, accusing the government of conducting a campaign of “vilification, intimidation and harassment.”

Government officials reportedly announced that they would not comply with the Supreme Court’s directive on the grounds that the Jang Group owed customs duties on previous shipments of newsprint, amounting to 1.6 billion rupees (US$31.4 million). The government meanwhile delivered a stream of tax evasion notices against the company and its publisher, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, totaling more than 2 billion rupees (US$40 million).

By early February 1999, the Jang Group was running skeleton editions of its flagship papers. The national dailies Jang and The News, each of which typically runs around two dozen pages, were both down to just four pages.

During the showdown, the government used the state income tax division, customs authority, intelligence agencies, and police, as well as its leverage over the courts, to bring the publishing house to heel. This multi-pronged assault was engineered by the Accountability Bureau, an agency ostensibly established by the Sharif administration to investigate political corruption across the board, but regularly used by the former prime minister to target his political opponents.

On February 1, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, urging him to cease his administration’s campaign against the Jang Group.

April 16

On May 7, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), one of the country’s largest and most well-respected human rights groups, received a notice from the district magistrate in Lahore stating that its quarterly, the HRCP Newsletter, had been banned.

According to the government memorandum, dated April 16, a show-cause notice had been sent to the HRCP in April 1998, asking the organization to give reasons why the newsletter’s license to publish should not be withdrawn. The memorandum said that because the HRCP had not responded to the show-cause notice, the publishing license for its newsletter “has been notified as null and void under Section 9(3) of the West Pakistan Press and Publications Ordinance, 1963.”

Sources at the HRCP told CPJ that they never received the initial show-cause notice mentioned in the memorandum. They believed the action was part of a government crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Under Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s administration, NGOs were punished for publishing reports critical of the government’s record on human rights and social welfare.

The Press and Publications Ordinance cited in the order lapsed in 1997. Though the HRCP notified the district magistrate of this fact and requested a formal withdrawal of the order, they received no response. The ban was not enforced, however.

May 4
Ejaz Haider, The Friday Times THREATENED

At around 1:30 p.m., Haider, news editor for The Friday Times, received a handwritten, unsigned note advising him to install bullet-proof windows in his car. Haider was not home at the time; the note was handed to the journalist’s 7-year-old son in the company of the family maid.

Haider told CPJ that he might have been targeted because he works for Najam Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based weekly The Friday Times. Recent news reports on state-controlled television had accused Sethi of unpatriotic behavior and called for him to be tried on sedition charges. The Friday Times had run a series of stories alleging rampant corruption within the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, which may have prompted the attacks.

On May 5, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Sharif, noting that the threat against Haider appeared to be part of the administration’s harassment campaign against journalists.

May 5
Imtiaz Alam, The News THREATENED

Alam, current affairs editor for the English-language daily The News in Lahore, witnessed two or three men setting fire to one of his cars, leaving behind only its charred remains. The incident happened between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m.; the men apparently broke into Alam’s gated residential compound and pushed the two vehicles into the street. Then they set fire to the newer car, a Suzuki Khyber, leaving the other vehicle untouched.

Alam told CPJ he had been receiving threatening phone calls for some time, and believed the arson attack may have been prompted by his recent articles about the government’s so-called “accountability” campaign, directed by Sen. Saifur Rehman. Under the guise of investigating corruption, the campaign allegedly targeted many of the administration’s political opponents, including journalists.

On May 5, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, noting that the threat against Haider appeared to part of the administration’s harassment campaign against journalists.

May 8
Najam Sethi, The Friday Times IMPRISONED

At around 2:30 a.m. on May 8, dozens of government agents raided the home of Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based weekly The Friday Times. According to Jugnu Mohsin, Sethi’s wife and the publisher of The Friday Times, the raid was the work of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau in partnership with the Punjab police. She said the officers forced their way through the locked gate of the residence, assaulted two security guards who had been hired to protect the family, and broke into the house.

At least eight armed officers–two uniformed, and the rest plainclothes–burst into the couple’s bedroom to make the arrest. Officers pulled Sethi out of bed and beat him with clubs and steel handcuffs. When Mohsin asked the officers to produce a warrant for Sethi’s arrest, one of them threatened to shoot her husband immediately and leave his corpse in place of a warrant.

While several officers dragged Sethi away at gunpoint, two others tied Mohsin up and locked her in her dressing room.

Just two days before his arrest, Sethi told CPJ that the government was using state-controlled media to set the stage for his arrest on charges of high treason and sedition. Sethi said he had been warned by senior government officials that some viewed his recent work with a BBC television crew investigating corruption within the family of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif as an attempt to destabilize the country and overthrow the government, and that his arrest was imminent.

An unnamed government spokesman was quoted widely in the Pakistani press as saying that the Inter-Services Intelligence agency was responsible for the arrest, and citing Sethi’s alleged collaboration with Indian intelligence agents as grounds for his detention.

On June 1, the ISI transferred Sethi to police custody, after an official First Information Report was filed against him under sections 123-A (“Condemnation of the Creation of the State and Advocacy of Abolition of its Sovereignty”), 124-A (sedition), and 153-A (“Promoting Enmity Between Different Groups”) of Pakistan’s penal code, and Section 13 of the Prevention of Anti-National Activities Act of 1974.

But on June 2, after failing to produce convincing evidence before the Supreme Court to justify Sethi’s prolonged detention, the attorney general announced that the government was dropping all charges against him.

CPJ sent protest letters to Prime Minister Sharif on May 10, following Sethi’s arrest, and again on June 3, upon his release, expressing dismay about the government’s systematic campaign to stifle independent journalism in Pakistan.

June 23
Najam Sethi, The Friday Times HARASSED

Officials from the Federal Immigration Authority (FIA) prevented Friday Times editor Sethi from boarding his scheduled flight to London, where he was to accept an award from Amnesty International recognizing “Human Rights Journalism Under Threat.” According to Sethi, FIA officials informed him that he was barred from traveling abroad for as long as his name appeared on the government’s Exit Control List. They told him that his name had been added to the list on June 2, the same day the government dropped all sedition-related charges against Sethi and ordered his release from custody.

Sethi was arrested at his home in Lahore on May 8, and detained for several weeks in the custody of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the army-dominated intelligence unit. Government statements indicated that Sethi was being investigated for “anti-state” activities, including his alleged collaboration with Indian intelligence operatives. CPJ believes that Sethi’s arrest stemmed from The Friday Times’ consistent calls for the administration to answer charges of high-level corruption, coupled with the editor’s recent work with a BBC television team investigating these allegations.

Just after the FIA agents turned Sethi away at the airport, he was approached by an official in plainclothes standing nearby, who asked him to hand over his passport. Assuming that the man was also with the FIA, Sethi complied with his request. The official then took Sethi’s passport under the pretext of making a copy of it.

When he did not return, Sethi asked to be taken to the man’s office. There he discovered that his passport had in fact been seized by an agent from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), a civilian security agency. The agent, who identified himself as Inspector Tariq Aziz, told Sethi that the IB would return his passport by mail after “due verification purposes.” Sethi’s passport had been returned to him just two days earlier, on June 21, by the ISI, which had been holding it ever since Sethi’s May arrest.

CPJ formally requested that Sethi’s name be struck from the Exit Control List in letters sent to the Prime Minister on June 23 and July 19. On June 28, an IB officer personally returned Sethi’s passport, and on July 27, Sethi received an official memorandum from the Interior Ministry, dated June 28, confirming his removal from the list.

July 8
Naveed Shad Arain, Pakistan News IMPRISONED
Nasir Mehmood, Pakistan News IMPRISONED
Haleem Adil Shaikh, Pakistan News HARASSED

Karachi police raided the offices of the weekly magazine Pakistan News (published in both Urdu and Sindhi editions) and arrested Arain, an editor, and Mehmood, a graphics editor. Police also raided the home of Shaikh, the weekly’s publisher, but were unable to find him.

Police filed criminal charges against the journalists for violating sections of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Law and penal code. Police chief Farooq Amin Qureshi told Agence France-Presse that the journalists were targeted for “publishing a provocative article having serious sectarian implications, which might ignite law and order problems in Karachi and other parts of [Sindh] province.”

The article detailed alleged sexual improprieties by the head of the Tehrik-e-Jafaria party, a political group supported by some in the minority Shiite Muslim community. Violent clashes between militant factions of Shiite and Sunni Muslims have contributed to Karachi’s toll of thousands killed in ethnic, political, and sectarian violence over the past several years.

The Karachi Union of Journalists held a meeting on July 9 to denounce the police actions and demand Arain’s and Mehmood’s release. Police released the two later that day, citing “medical grounds.”

On July 12, CPJ learned that police had closed the case on instructions from the Sindh provincial government. Shaikh’s brother was then a member of the Sindh provincial assembly and of the country’s ruling party.

July 15
Najam Sethi, The Friday Times LEGAL ACTION

The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) summoned Sethi to appear before the court on July 28 in response to a petition filed by a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly seeking to disqualify him from ever voting or running for office.

The petition–filed by Syed Zafar Ali Shah, a member of the ruling party–asked the CEC to determine Sethi’s religious credentials, and requested that his name be struck from the voters’ lists if he “does not fulfill the requirements of a Muslim” as defined in Article 260-3 of Pakistan’s constitution.

The petitioner also charged that Sethi’s speech before a New Delhi audience on April 30 violated Articles 62(h) and 63-1(g) of the constitution, which prohibit people whose speech or actions are deemed prejudicial to the “ideology of Pakistan” from holding any elected office.

Journalists in Pakistan told CPJ that the case was filed at the behest of then-Senator Saif-ur Rehman, who headed the Sharif government’s Accountability Bureau and was widely believed to be in charge of the administration’s attacks against the opposition, including journalists.

On July 19, CPJ wrote to Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, expressing concern about his government’s ongoing persecution of Najam Sethi. CPJ observed Sethi’s October 6 hearing before Chief Election Commissioner Muhammed Qadeer in Islamabad. After a two-hour hearing, Qadeer dismissed the petition without comment.