CPJ condemns attacks on Pakistani journalists covering opposition

New York, April 19, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a series of police attacks and acts of obstruction aimed at journalists covering the opposition Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) activities on Friday and Saturday. CPJ today called on authorities to punish those responsible for the abuses.

About 50 journalists traveling with Asif Ali Zardari—opposition leader and husband of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto—on his flight from Dubai to Lahore Saturday morning were surrounded by police as they exited the plane and forced to surrender their camera equipment, audio recorders, and mobile phones, according to local journalists. Those who resisted were slapped and abused by the police; Mazhar Tufail of Geo TV was beaten and held in police custody for two hours, the news Web site South Asia Tribune reported.

The journalists staged a sit-in at the airport for several hours to protest the abuse and the confiscation of their gear. When police finally returned the journalists’ equipment, all of their recordings had been erased and memory cards had been removed, according to local press accounts. An airport security chief told a reporter from The Guardian of London that police were acting on orders. Police warned other journalists that they were given instructions from “the top” to take the equipment, the South Asia Tribune reported.

In the run-up to Zardari’s arrival, thousands of police took to the streets of Lahore to block rallies by PPP supporters. Communication towers were also shut down, disrupting cell phone service, CNN reported.

On Friday, police in Karachi attacked PPP activists trying to board a train to Lahore, wounding several activists and journalists who were covering the day’s events. The Pakistan Press Foundation reported that three journalists were taken to the hospital for treatment: Malik Munawar, of the daily Asas Karachi, Tasadduk Ghouri, of Janbaz Karachi, and Yaseen Jabalpuri of APNA TV. A spokesman for the All Pakistan Newspapers Society said that police also detained several journalists and grabbed cameras from photographers at the train station.

Journalists’ groups condemned the rash of attacks, and reporters covering Pakistan’s parliament, the National Assembly, boycotted the session yesterday in protest.

“These blatant obstructions of the free flow of information inside Pakistan make a mockery of official claims of press freedom,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Journalists must be allowed to cover the news safely and freely without fear of abuse and confiscation of their equipment.”

Despite talk of reconciliation between Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf and leaders of opposition political parties, his government remains adamant about stamping out political protests in Lahore.

A similarly aggressive police response occurred in May 2004, when exiled politician Shahbaz Sharif tried to fly home to Lahore after three years of exile. Reporters traveling with him were detained by police in the airport and also had their equipment forcibly confiscated.