Pakistani journalists have long navigated a treacherous course, threatened by militant groups, criminal gangs, political bosses, and powerful intelligence agencies, but the rest of the world scarcely noticed these dangers until the assassination of American reporter Daniel Pearl. Months after Pearl’s murder, another journalist was killed in Pakistan: Shahid Soomro. Like Pearl, Soomro was killed in volatile Sindh Province, but he was the victim of local politicos angered by his reporting on their abuse of power.
Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief for the U.S.-based Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and killed in the port city of Karachi while reporting on links between Pakistani militant groups and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. In the days following Pearl’s abduction, his captors sent e-mail messages containing photographs of the journalist, as well as a series of demands addressed to the U.S. government. The first message accused Pearl of being an American spy, while another sent days later branded him an agent of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. U.S. officials confirmed his brutal murder on February 21, after receiving a digital videotape documenting his beheading.
Many Pakistani journalists strongly condemned Pearl’s kidnappers. Local press organizations issued statements in support of Pearl, and several newspapers published editorials calling for his safe release. That an American journalist working for a powerful news organization could be so easily targeted sent tremors through the local press corps and discouraged serious investigations into matters such as militant groups active inside Pakistan.
However, the Pakistani press–which includes everything from religious-party organs to scandal sheets to sober political journals–largely holds its own under the military government led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. While self-censorship is widespread, the tenacity of the local media is remarkable. Pakistani journalists have long endured routine surveillance and harassment by state intelligence agencies, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence, which the army controls, and these pressures have intensified under Musharraf’s rule.
Working without the protections offered by democratic institutions, many journalists avoid publicizing state-sponsored harassment for fear of reprisals. One of the country’s leading newspapers sent a private letter to General Musharraf after two of its correspondents complained of harassment and threats from intelligence officials. The letter, a copy of which CPJ obtained, urged Musharraf to order an inquiry into the matter but also explained that the newspaper “does not want to generate a public controversy through its publications … when there is a dire need for greater harmony in the country to meet the external threat.”
One U.S. journalist, Elizabeth Rubin, who attempted to escape her military minders while traveling in Azad Kashmir, the Pakistan-controlled section of the disputed Himalayan territory, said that as soon as she left the area, intelligence agents interrogated her sources. Authorities detained one of these sources, a Kashmiri, for nearly two months. Intelligence agents held another man, a refugee who had fled from Indian-controlled Kashmir and had worked with Rubin as a guide and translator, incommunicado for 10 days. He was repeatedly interrogated and accused of working to tarnish Pakistan’s image. A local journalist who had worked with Rubin as a fixer, meanwhile, nearly lost his job at an Urdu-language daily that was under government pressure to dismiss him.
While the military government did not undertake a sweeping crackdown on the media, several actions belied its avowed commitment to press freedom. Shaheen Sehbai, the former editor of The News newspaper, resigned in March, citing government interference with the publication’s editorial content. From the United States, Sehbai began publishing an online newspaper, The South Asia Tribune, which frequently criticizes the military regime. With Sehbai out of the country and out of reach, police harassed and arrested several members of his family on spurious charges, including armed robbery.
During the run-up to Musharraf’s broadly criticized April referendum, which extended his presidency for five years, the general frequently accused the press of unfairly attacking his record. In August, Musharraf introduced a series of new media ordinances, which were billed as reform measures but may be used to limit press freedom. The All Pakistan Newspaper Society, a powerful organization of the country’s publishers, criticized the new laws, calling them “illegitimate, unethical, and unconstitutional.” Under these laws, defamation remains a criminal offense, and publishing without a government license is punishable by imprisonment. One ordinance mandates the creation of a Press Council, chaired by a government appointee, with the power to ban publications and issue other punitive sanctions.
The press laws were announced at around the same time that Musharraf unilaterally introduced a number of constitutional amendments to strengthen his powers and give the military a permanent role in governance. All these steps came in advance of the October parliamentary elections, which were supposed to usher in a shift to a civilian government. The new prime minister, however, is a Musharraf ally, and ultimate power appears to remain with the general and his army.
Although no party won an absolute majority in the elections, a coalition of hard-line Islamist parties won control of two key provinces along the Afghan border, North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan Province. This religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), adamantly opposes U.S. presence in the region, especially U.S. operations in the border areas, where al-Qaeda and Taliban members are believed to have found refuge after fleeing Afghanistan.
In the past, religious parties have not tolerated the press. One journalist who had worked in Peshawar, in NWFP, was forced into exile in 1999 after the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, a powerful religious party that now belongs to the MMA, organized large-scale demonstrations calling for his assassination. The journalist had angered local religious leaders by reporting on allegations of sexual harassment of children at Muslim seminaries in the area. In 2001, religious parties in NWFP organized a series of protests against journalists working for the Peshawar-based Frontier Post newspaper, which had accidentally published a letter that was considered blasphemous. Local authorities responded by arresting seven journalists for blasphemy, which is punishable by death. At the end of 2002, one of these journalists, Munawwar Mohsin, remained in prison.
Reporting along the Afghan border is difficult and dangerous. Non-Pakistanis are required to obtain permission before traveling to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, over which the central government exercises little control, but foreign journalists were generally denied access to the area in 2002. This made reporting on the nature and extent of U.S. military activity in the region almost impossible. Journalists based in the tribal areas are vulnerable to pressure from local administrators, who wield unchecked power under laws dating from the British colonial period. Members of the media also face threats and harassment from heavily armed segments of the public. In 2002, one local journalist received death threats after filming footage along the border areas for a U.S. documentary about the search for al-Qaeda members. He was accused of working as a U.S. informant.
Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal
A.R. Shuja, Khabrain
Tahir Rasheed, Khabrain
Ibrahim Lucky, Online Lahore
Mian Aslam, Business Report
Mehtabuddin Nishat, Ghareeb
Sarfraz Sahi, Insaaf
Malik Naeem, Parwaz
Ashfaq Jahangir, Parwaz
Naseer Cheema, Current Report
Muhammad Bilal, Current Report
Hamid Raza, Juraat
Ramzan Nasir, Tehrik
Mayed Ali, The News
Roman Ihsan, Jang
Nasir Butt, Pakistan
Mian Saeef, Ausaf
Jawed Saddiqui, Musawat
Saeed Qadri, Din
Mian Rifaat Qadri, News Network International
Jawed Malik, Soorat-i-Hal
Police in Faisalabad, Punjab Province, assaulted a group of journalists during a rally staged to promote an upcoming referendum to prolong the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf for five more years. Dozens of journalists had walked out of the rally to protest hostile remarks by Punjab governor Khalid Maqbool, who accused the Pakistani media of undermining General Musharraf’s referendum campaign “by publishing fake reports.” As the journalists left the rally, which was held at the Iqbal Stadium in Faisalabad, baton-wielding police officers assaulted them.
According to a report in the newspaper Dawn, at least 23 journalists were injured, including:
• Shuja, Rasheed, and Tasneem (full name unavailable), of the newspaper Khabrain;
• Lucky, of the news agency Online Lahore;
• Aslam, of the newspaper Business Report;
• Nishat, of the newspaper Ghareeb;
• Sahi, of the newspaper Insaaf;
• Naeem and Jahangir, of the newspaper Parwaz;
• Cheema and Bilal, of the newspaper Current Report;
• Raza, of the newspaper Juraat;
• Nasir, of the newspaper Tehrik;
• Ali, of the daily The News;
• Ihsan, of the daily Jang;
• Butt, Ziaullah, and Khalid (full names unavailable), of the newspaper Pakistan;
• Saeef, of the newspaper Ausaf;
• Saddiqui, of the daily Musawat;
• Saeed Qadri, of the daily Din;
• Mian Rifaat Qadri, of the Pakistani news agency News Network International; and
• Malik of the newspaper Soorat-i-Hal.
Members of the public also assaulted some journalists after Governor Maqbool, a retired lieutenant general, warned that “the public could take revenge on [journalists] if they did not desist from wrong reporting,” according to Dawn. Maqbool then led the crowd in chanting “Shame!” against the press, prompting the journalists to walk out.
Amardeep Bassey, The Sunday Mercury
Bassey, investigations editor for the British newspaper The Sunday Mercury, and his two Pakistani guides, Naoshad Ali Afridi and Khitab Shah Shinwari, were arrested at the Torkham border crossing, near Peshawar, on their way back into Pakistan from Afghanistan. Pakistani officials told journalists that Bassey, a British citizen, was being held on suspicion of espionage.
An Interior Ministry official told The Associated Press that Bassey had failed to obtain an exit visa before leaving Pakistan. Bassey, Afridi, and Shinwari were first held in Landi Kotal, a Pakistani town at the mouth of the Khyber Pass. They were later transferred to a detention center in Peshawar, where they were interrogated by members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and other state security agencies, according to local and international news reports.
The British Foreign Office said that Bassey was one of five accredited journalists on an April trip to Afghanistan sponsored by the British government, but that he was working independently at the time of his arrest. Pakistani officials told local journalists that they were suspicious of Bassey because of his Indian descent. An activist with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan who visited Bassey in detention said the journalist was accused of spying for neighboring India. Authorities also claimed that Bassey’s watch, which includes a built-in digital camera, raised suspicions that he was acting as a spy.
Indian journalists and journalists of Indian origin are rarely granted visas to report in Pakistan. Once the country , they are generally subject to intense scrutiny by Pakistan’s intelligence services. On May 25, after finding no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, local authorities issued a deportation order for Bassey and forwarded it to the Interior Minister’s office. However, authorities did not release Bassey until June 6 and offered no explanation for the delay. His guides were released without charge on July 10.
Shaheen Sehbai, The South Asia Tribune
Police in Rawalpindi filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Sehbai, editor of the online weekly South Asia Tribune, accusing him of criminal acts allegedly committed in February 2001. The complaint was made by Khalid Mahmud Hekazi, who is, according to Sehbai, a civilian employee who works at the Pakistani army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi. Hekazi was formerly married to a cousin of Sehbai’s, whom he recently divorced.
The FIR states, among other things, that Sehbai threatened to rob Hekazi at his home at gunpoint, and names Sehbai’s wife, as well as several nieces and nephews, as complicit in these crimes. Sehbai and his wife live in the United States and were therefore in no danger of arrest. However, police began harassing Sehbai’s relatives, even arresting several of them as alleged “accomplices.” The South Asian Tribune has written critically about Pakistan’s military government.
Sehbai had previously worked as editor of the national English-language daily The News, one of Pakistan’s most influential newspapers. He resigned from The News on March 1, alleging government interference with the editorial content of the paper.
Shahid Soomro, Kawish