Attacks on the Press 2004: Pakistan


As a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, intensified efforts to capture al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in 2004. Musharraf also grew increasingly agitated by local and international reporting on alleged terrorist activities inside the country, deeming such coverage “antistate.” Journalists covering these sensitive issues faced growing obstacles in 2004, from illegal detentions and onerous antiterrorism legislation to stepped-up defamation laws and financial pressures.

The Pakistani press is remarkably lively and outspoken, but local journalists say they must operate within limits or face official pressure. Some harassment is relatively subtle. The government can stop advertising in publications, a powerful inducement because the vast majority of newspapers depend on revenue from official ads. In retaliation for critical reporting, authorities in February halted federal and provincial government advertising in the Nawa-i-Waqt Group of Publications, which publishes more than 10 daily newspapers and magazines, according to local journalists. Information Minister Sheikh Rashid denied any official ban, claiming it was instead a “reduction.” Government advertising resumed in October, but the message to publishers and editors was clear: Journalists who are too critical will pay dearly.

In July, the government stopped advertising in the Islamabad-based Urdu-language daily Jinnah after it ran articles about Pakistan’s nuclear program and a critical story about the powerful Rashid, local sources said. These topics and others—such as the military, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or militant Islamic activity—particularly irritated government officials, who ratcheted up their rhetoric against the press in 2004.

The arrest and detention of Khawar Mehdi Rizvi starkly illustrated the government’s tactics. Rizvi, a veteran journalist and fixer for international news organizations, accompanied two French journalists with the newsmagazine L’Express to the western city of Quetta in December 2003. They went to research and film a story about Taliban activity along the western border with Afghanistan, although the French reporters did not have visas to travel to Quetta.

Rizvi and the French journalists, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, were arrested in Karachi on December 16, 2003, but officials initially denied holding Rizvi and said he must be “missing.” Epstein and Guilloteau were charged with visa violations, given six-month suspended sentences in January, and allowed to return home. Meanwhile, authorities continued to deny holding Rizvi until January 24, when he was finally brought before a Quetta court and formally charged with sedition, impersonation, and conspiracy—charges that could bring life imprisonment. Speaking to reporters outside the court, Rizvi said he had been tortured while in custody.

In an interview on CNN days before Rizvi’s first hearing, Musharraf claimed to have no idea where he was but said the journalist was a “most unsympathetic man” who was “trying to bring harm to my country.” Pakistan’s state television, PTV, meanwhile, repeatedly aired footage it claimed that Rizvi had staged of Taliban fighters. On March 29, Rizvi was finally granted bail. He was on trial in antiterrorism court until December, when he left the country. Rizvi told CPJ that the court proceedings against him had been riddled with irregularities, and that he had no chance of receiving a fair trial. Authorities revoked his bail and began harassing his family after his departure, Rizvi said.

Another local reporter was arrested in April after accompanying a Western journalist near the semiautonomous tribal areas along Pakistan’s western border. Sami Yousafzai, a stringer for Newsweek magazine and an Afghan national, traveled with American freelance reporter Eliza Griswold through North West Frontier Province on April 21. After they were stopped at a military checkpoint in Bannu near the western border of the tribal region, Yousafzai and their driver were arrested and held for more than a month, first in prison in Peshawar and later in a jail in South Waziristan, also in western Pakistan. Griswold was allowed to leave the country without penalty.

Foreign reporters must get special permission to travel into tribal areas, and they face increasing restrictions on other fronts. Clearances are required to visit certain cities, and the government is proposing new rules barring foreign reporters from a growing number of sites across the country, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The Pakistani army launched a major offensive in March in the remote and mountainous tribal regions to flush out al-Qaeda and Taliban members. For the most part, the military denied local and foreign journalists access to cover the operations. CPJ has documented several instances of the military detaining or arresting journalists at checkpoints; confiscating their equipment; and flatly denying them entry to areas where fighting was occurring. Local journalists say they are under threat from both sides: The military bans the journalists, and local commanders threaten them. As a result, there has been little independent reporting on the ground, as well as concern about the number of civilian casualties. Officials counter that local reporters give skewed information that favors the militants.

In October, local press coverage of a hostage crisis in South Waziristan ignited a conflict between journalists and the information minister. A pro–al-Qaeda tribal leader named Abdullah Mehsud kidnapped two Chinese nationals in early October and gave frequent interviews to the press during the ensuing hostage crisis. On October 12, Information Minister Rashid threatened to use an antiterrorism law against journalists who were, in his words, “glorifying” or “presenting terrorists as heroes.”

“Today we have warned the media,” Rashid said. “If they don’t pay heed, then we’ll see what we can do.” He threatened to use the Anti-Terrorism Amendment Ordinance—which allows police to detain people suspected of terrorist activity for up to a year without charge—against reporters who cover events relating to terrorism, according to press accounts. Local journalists told CPJ that in meetings in the fall with regional press ministers and journalists, Rashid reiterated that journalists whose writing went “against the interests of the country” risk being punished under the antiterrorism law.

In another setback for the free press, the government moved closer to strengthening the country’s criminal defamation code. A new bill proposed an increase in penalties for libel, including up to five years in prison and minimum damages of 100,000 rupees (US$1,700). A provision that would have held publishers, editors, and reporters accountable for libel charges in individual cases was dropped after intense lobbying from the journalism community, but troublesome aspects remained in the bill, which the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, passed in August. The Senate was reviewing the measure at year’s end.

The government did loosen its grip on Pakistan’s electronic media in 2004. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued 55 licenses for private FM radio stations and 10 licenses for satellite TV channels, according to the state-owned Pakistan Newswire. As many as 15 privately run FM stations went on the air in 2004, the Peshawar-based national daily Frontier Post reported, but content restrictions remained. Rebroadcasting foreign news is forbidden, according to local news reports, and “antinational” reporting is prohibited, according to The New York Times.

Local journalists say that a “fear factor” promotes self-censorship, keeping many journalists, publishers, and owners in line. Two respected political columnists, Shafqat Mahmood and Kamran Shafi, quit their posts at the English-language daily The News to protest the “intrusive editing” they say they endured as a result of critical stories on domestic issues and the Musharraf administration. Writing in the South Asia Tribune, an online news Web site, Mahmood said his superiors told him there was “too much pressure from the government and the paper has no choice but to censor me.” Mahmood and Shafi now write for the English-language daily The Friday Times. A third columnist, M.B. Naqvi, remains at The News but writes mostly about international issues to avoid censors, sources told CPJ.

Pakistani forces killed Amjad Hussain Farooqi, one of the nation’s most wanted criminals and a main suspect in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, during a shootout in the southern town of Nawabshah on September 26. Pearl, the Journal‘s South Asia bureau chief, was kidnapped and murdered in early 2002 while researching a story on terrorism. A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Farooqi was a key al-Qaeda member with links to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a suspected mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mohammed, who is also implicated in Pearl’s murder, was apprehended in 2003 and placed in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.

The four Pakistanis convicted of Pearl’s murder in July 2002 have tried repeatedly to appeal their sentences, but their petitions had still not been heard by year’s end. Another suspect in Pearl’s murder, Asim Ghafoor, was killed in a shootout with police in Karachi in November. Several other suspects in the murder remain at large.

The press debated the circumstances behind Farooqi’s killing. In an interview with the satellite television channel ARY-TV, Farooqi’s brother claimed that Farooqi had been in police custody for several days before being killed. According to the South Asia Tribune, the report infuriated Pakistani officials, who called ARY-TV and ordered the news program that had aired the interview, “News and Views,” off the air for several weeks in October.

A positive development for the press came in November, when the country’s lone imprisoned journalist, Munawar Mohsin, was released after spending four years behind bars on blasphemy charges. Mohsin, a former editor at the Frontier Post, was sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2003 for publishing a letter to the editor that included an allegedly derogatory statement about the Prophet Muhammad. Mohsin was acquitted on appeal because the court found that publication of the letter was not a “willful act,” according to Mohsin’s lawyer.