Although the press in Pakistan enjoyed greater freedom under its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, journalists there still operate under pressure from the military, religious hard-liners, intelligence agencies, and the country’s antiquated blasphemy laws.
Since parliamentary elections in October 2002, which were held with the stated goal of restoring democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan, the government has been locked in a power struggle between Musharraf’s attempts to strengthen the presidency and Parliament’s demand that he relinquish his title as head of the army and rule the country as a civilian president. On December 24, Musharraf finally agreed to step down as military head in 2004 as part of a deal to extend his five-year term with the approval of Parliament’s major parties, including the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and the Pakistan People’s Party.
The role of the military within the government will continue to be a critical issue for Pakistan’s future, especially after Musharraf narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in an 11-day period in December in Rawalpindi, the town outside the capital, Islamabad, where the military is headquartered.
In this climate, the country’s nuclear policy, religious issues, and any criticism of the army remained taboo for the Pakistani press. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (sections 295 A, B, C, and 505 of the Penal Code) state that anyone who “directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed shall be punished with death, or life imprisonment, and shall also be liable to a fine.” According to local journalists, the laws were used to persecute journalists and led to self-censorship among the press in 2003.
On July 8, Munawar Mohsin, a former subeditor at the Peshawar-based national daily Frontier Post, was sentenced to life in prison by a court in North West Frontier Province on charges of blasphemy for publishing a letter to the editor in January 2001 titled “Why Muslims Hate Jews,” which included derogatory references to the Prophet Muhammad. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Post the day after the letter appeared and set fire to the building housing the paper’s printing press. District officials charged Mohsin and six other staff members with blasphemy; two went into hiding, and the other four were arrested but later released. Mohsin is the only Post staff member still in jail. Although a judicial inquiry into the case found that the offending letter was published by mistake, and the Post placed prominent advertisements in all of Pakistan’s major newspapers apologizing for the incident, the court ruled that Mohsin “intentionally and willfully committed an offense.”
The severity of Mohsin’s sentence was seen as a warning to local journalists not to print anything that could offend Pakistan’s religious groups. The July 28 edition of the U.S.-based weekly Newsweek magazine was banned and all copies were seized because of an article about the original language of the Quran, which Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said could “incite religious sentiments.” In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Ahmed said the government “expected the media to be careful about the religious sensitivities of the Muslim people.”
The media also had to be careful about the sensitivities of the Pakistani army in 2003. Amir Mir, former editor of the Weekly Independent, a Lahore-based English-language newspaper, was forced to resign in June under pressure from local government officials who accused the paper of running articles that were “against the national interest,” and of having an “anti-army policy.” A former head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also threatened the paper, and the local Punjab government withheld advertisements in retaliation for the Weekly Independent‘s critical articles about the military.
Undaunted, Mir moved on to the monthly magazine the Herald, a publication known for highlighting Musharraf’s suppression of civil liberties, and continued writing articles that questioned the actions of the military. According to a report in the daily Jang, the largest circulation national Urdu-language newspaper, Musharraf criticized the Herald and accused the paper of “damaging our national interest” during a meeting with newspaper editors on November 20. On November 22, Mir’s car was set on fire in front of his house in Lahore, and he said shortly after that, he received a phone call from a member of the ISI telling him that this was “just the beginning.”
On December 4, Information Minister Ahmed denied that Musharraf had made the reported comments about Mir and reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to press freedom, saying that the government would “safeguard and protect freedom of the press as it believes that a free and vibrant media are essential for the consolidation of democracy.”
The March arrest of senior al-Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi marked a potential breakthrough in the investigation of the January 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal South Asia Bureau Chief Daniel Pearl. Mohammed is reportedly a top aide to Osama bin Laden and allegedly organized the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. According to an October report in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. authorities have strong evidence that Mohammed himself killed Pearl, who was kidnapped in Karachi on January 23, 2002, while researching a story about Islamic extremists. He was held by a group that issued statements in the name of the previously unknown National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, and it was not known whether Pearl was alive or dead until a videotape of his murder was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad on February 21, 2002. At year’s end, Mohammed was in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.
In 2002, four men were convicted of Pearl’s murder. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was sentenced to death, and Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib, and Sheikh Mohammed Adeel received 25-year sentences. Naseem, Saqib, and Adeel denied any involvement in Pearl’s killing and appealed their convictions. Their hearings were delayed six times in 2003. At year’s end, Pakistani police were still looking for seven other suspects in the case.
In 2003, two Islamic extremist groups linked to Pearl’s murder, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, were banned in Pakistan for preaching militancy and hatred. According to local journalists, the ban includes monitoring publications associated with these groups. After a suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in the southwestern city of Quetta in July killed as many as 54 people, Musharraf launched another crackdown on outlawed militant groups under the country’s antiterrorism law. In 2002, more than 1,000 alleged militants were rounded up and then released. This time, Pakistan’s Central Bank asked members of militant organizations to submit security deposits that would be forfeited if they rejoined the outlawed groups, and the Interior Ministry closed their offices.
In October, two journalists in the Khyber Agency Region of Pakistan’s tribal areas on the western border with Afghanistan were threatened and briefly detained by an outlawed extremist group after reporting on the group’s activities. Other local journalists said that Taliban and al-Qaeda members have harassed them for reporting on their activities in the region.
Due to outcries from the press, a series of restrictive defamation laws proposed in 2002 were not formally approved by Parliament in 2003. The government retained its control of the electronic news media in Pakistan, but authorities took their first steps toward liberalizing media policy in January, when the government issued licenses to 22 companies to open private FM radio stations and allowed private companies to apply for TV station licenses. For now, the radio stations are only allowed to broadcast music and entertainment, but a senior official told the BBC in January that they may be allowed to broadcast news in the future. Pakistani satellite news channels, which are not permitted to broadcast from inside the country, are operated out of Dubai and the United Kingdom.