His Excellency Gen. Pervez Musharraf
Chief Executive, Islamic Republic of Pakistan
General Headquarters, Pakistan Army
Via Facsimile: 92-51-922-4206
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply dismayed by the recent arrests of at least a dozen employees of the English-language newspaper The Frontier Post and its sister publication, the Urdu-language daily Maidan. District officials in Peshawar, where both newspapers are published, ordered the arrests and sealed The Frontier Post's printing press without having conducted any investigation into allegations of blasphemy against the daily.
On January 29, The Frontier Post published a letter to the editor entitled "Why Muslims Hate Jews," which included derogatory references to Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Although senior management at the newspaper claimed the letter was inserted into the copy as an act of sabotage by disgruntled employees and apologized for failing to stop its publication, district officials responded to complaints from local religious leaders by shutting down the paper and ordering the immediate arrest of seven staff members on charges of blasphemy. In Pakistan, anyone accused of blasphemy is subject to immediate arrest without due process safeguards; those found guilty may be sentenced to death.
That same evening, police sealed the offices and the printing press of The Frontier Post, and arrested Aftab Ahmed, news editor; Imtiaz Hussain, chief reporter; Munawwar Mohsin, sub-editor; Qazi Ghulam Sarwar, feature writer; and Wajihul Hassan, computer operator. Police are searching for others charged, including Mehmood Afridi, the paper's managing editor. Local authorities later revealed that they were also holding Shahid Afridi, who is not an employee of the newspaper but was on the premises at the time of the police raid, on charges of disrupting public order.
On January 30, The Frontier Post placed prominent advertisements on the front pages of the country's major Urdu- and English-language dailies, noting that it "profoundly regrets the publication . . . of highly blasphemous material masquerading as a letter to the editor, and identifies with the injured feelings of the nation over the issue." Mehmood Afridi, the paper's managing editor, urged the government to launch an immediate judicial inquiry into the circumstances of the letter's publication.
Despite the paper's unequivocal public apology, religious groups continued to stage violent demonstrations, with some protestors calling for the journalists to be executed. On January 30, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside The Frontier Post's offices and set fire to the building housing the paper's printing press. The fire caused extensive property damage. Local journalists told CPJ that police stationed outside the building did not act swiftly to stop the destruction, and charged that some officers had even aided the arsonists.
This evening, at approximately 6:30 p.m. local time, police arrested about six people from the daily Maidan, including the paper's news editor, Kifayatullah. Local journalists told CPJ that the group was taken in for interrogation, as police were trying to determine the whereabouts of Mehmood Afridi.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is shocked by the government's handling of this crisis. Instead of acting to curb public anger, Your Excellency has publicly condemned The Frontier Post for committing blasphemy, a charge that puts the journalists of the paper in extreme danger.
CPJ respectfully requests Your Excellency order the immediate release of the accused pending a full investigation into this matter. In light of the prompt, public apology offered by The Frontier Post, we believe that punitive action is unwarranted and contributes to a hostile atmosphere for the press.
The actions taken by district officials also highlight the dangers of the blasphemy laws, which have been used to persecute journalists and religious minorities. Your Excellency had rightly sought to modify these laws so that they would be less prone to abuse, and we encourage you to revisit this issue.
We also urge you to instruct local authorities to guarantee the security of journalists employed by The Frontier Post and Maidan who feel they are at risk of physical harm.
Ann K. Cooper
EDITOR'S NOTE: The content of this letter has been modified to protect the security of a journalist.