His Excellency Gen. Pervez Musharraf
President, Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Via facsimile: 92-51-922-4206
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by the resignation last week of Shaheen Sehbai, the influential editor of The News, one of Pakistan's leading English-language newspapers.
In a resignation letter addressed to his boss but circulated among colleagues and friends, Sehbai said that he was leaving his post under pressure from the government, warning that Pakistani officials were sending a message to the press to "Get in line, or be ready for the stick."
CPJ responded to the news on March 1, stating that we are "extremely worried about any signs of government interference with the free press in Pakistan." The statement added that "the Pakistani press has been one of the few institutions strong enough to help check the military government."
On March 2, CPJ received a press release from Pakistan's Ministry of Information and Media Development that dismissed Sehbai's accusations of government interference at The News as "wild and scurrilous allegations." The statement also criticized CPJ for having "rushed to a conclusion" about the case.
CPJ, a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, remains deeply concerned about the state of press freedom in Pakistan.
While the circumstances under which Sehbai left his post at The News are under dispute, several well-informed sources said pressure on the newspaper had increased in recent weeks, culminating with the government's cancellation of lucrative advertising contracts. Local journalists told CPJ that government officials have discouraged reporting on sensitive subjects such as alleged links between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and local militant groups, often arguing that such reporting could damage "national interests."
In his letter to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, publisher and editor-in-chief of The News, Sehbai claimed that the government pressured Rahman to fire him and three reporters, identified as Kamran Khan, Amir Mateen, and Rauf Klasra.
Rahman denies that he was under any pressure to make staff changes. But in a memo to Sehbai, the publisher complained of "fallout" from a recent story "which was perceived to be damaging to our national interest and elicited severe reaction by the Government."
The article in question appeared under Kamran Khan's byline on February 18. It concerned Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime suspect in the abduction of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. In the article, Khan, who also reports for The Washington Post, reported that Sheikh had told investigators he was also involved in the December 13 suicide squad attack on the Indian Parliament. India blamed Pakistan-backed militants for the attack, leading to escalating tensions between the two countries and the looming threat of war on the subcontinent.
The government stopped nearly all advertising in the Jang newspaper group, which publishes The News, after the story appeared.
Alluding to the Sehbai case, a lead editorial in today's edition of The Nation--a competitor of The News--notes that "there is a growing perception of subtle, and at times not so subtle, pressure being applied to publications critical of government policies."
CPJ urges Your Excellency to publicly uphold the right of the press in Pakistan to report freely, without fear of reprisal. In the absence of constitutional protections and democratic safeguards, the Pakistani press is extremely vulnerable to government interference.