Attacks on the Press 2005: Pakistan


Striking contradictions emerged during the sixth year of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s rule. Baton-wielding police attacked journalists in several high-profile incidents, including two on World Press Freedom Day in May, even as the administration publicly proclaimed its commitment to press freedom. Journalists faced new threats of imprisonment for defamation and programming deemed “vulgar,” while the broadcast sector blossomed with the launch of numerous commercial television and radio stations.

When a massive 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck in the mountainous northern region of Kashmir in October, journalists faced their greatest professional challenge. The death toll climbed above 87,000 after the October 8 earthquake, and the journalistic community was not spared. At least 11 journalists died and others were unaccounted for, while dozens of others lost relatives and homes, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). The PFUJ worked with other press organizations to raise money to help deliver supplies to journalists in the devastated areas. Local and international journalists traveled amid the destruction and widespread hardship to transmit reports from the remote region.

Throughout the year, local journalists described disturbing patterns of economic pressure, threats, and attacks against individual reporters, newspapers, and publishing groups. The brutal February murders of two journalists in Pakistan’s tribal areas marked a low point for reporters covering the military’s effort to flush out members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the semi-autonomous region. Unknown gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying 10 journalists in Wana, capital of South Waziristan, killing Mir Nawab, a freelance cameraman with Associated Press Television News, and Allah Noor, a reporter with The Nation and Khyber TV. Two others were injured: Anwar Shakir, a stringer for Agence France-Presse, and Dilawar Khan, who was working for Al-Jazeera.

Returning from the town of Sararogha, where they covered the surrender of suspected tribal militant Baitullah Mehsud, the journalists had just entered government-controlled territory when the attackers sprayed their bus with gunfire. In a letter faxed to newspapers, an unknown group calling itself “Sipah-e-Islam” (Soldiers of Islam) took responsibility for the killings and accused journalists of “working for Christians” and of “being used as tools in negative propaganda…against the Muslim mujahedeen.” Local journalists who witnessed the attack complained that no attempt was made to stop the gunmen’s vehicle and that no real investigation has taken place since.

Hayatullah Khan, a reporter for the Urdu-language daily Ausaf was kidnapped on December 5 by unidentified gunmen in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Five men with AK-47 assault rifles forced Khan’s car off the road, said his brother, Mohammad Ehsan, who was in the vehicle. Four days earlier, Khan had covered an explosion in the town of Haisori. His reports contradicted Pakistani authorities’ claim that Abu Hamza Rabia, a senior al-Qaeda commander, died when munitions exploded inside a house. Khan quoted local tribesmen as saying the house was hit by a missile fired from an aircraft. U.S. networks ABC and NBC both reported that the blast appeared to have been caused by a U.S. missile fired from an unmanned, remote-controlled Predator aircraft.

Journalists in tribal areas said they were increasingly at the mercy of militants, some of them alleged Taliban members, making conditions too dangerous to report the news. Mujeebur Rehman, a correspondent for the Lahore-based national Daily Times and a stringer for Reuters, narrowly escaped assassination in Wana in May when masked gunmen fired repeatedly in a drive-by shooting. Security forces systematically restricted access to conflict zones in tribal areas, effectively prohibiting even local journalists from covering their activities.

In larger cities, journalists suffered an increasing number of violent attacks, often at the hands of police and local political parties. On April 14, brass-knuckled men from the regional Jamhoori Watan Party stormed the office of Kamran Mumtaz, editor of the Daily Mashraq in the western city of Quetta, and punched the journalist in the face. The men claimed that articles in the newspaper were biased against their party. When other journalists protested the attack in a demonstration in Quetta days later, police tore down their banners and forcibly dispersed the group, according to the state-run Pakistan Newswire.

Police obstructed coverage of opposition leader Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Lahore on April 16, when 50 journalists traveling with him were detained at the airport for three hours. Police commandos confiscated their gear and beat them. Police warned other journalists that they were given instructions from “the top” to take the equipment, the South Asia Tribune reported.

The gap between government rhetoric and police harassment was never more apparent than on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. Journalists rallying in the capital, Islamabad, were harassed and as many as 30 were detained for several hours, according to local journalists and news reports. Journalists marching for press freedom in Lahore were attacked by baton-swinging police. The same day, Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told the audience at a “Free Press for Free Pakistan” conference that the “government believes in the freedom of press and welcomes positive criticism,” the Pakistan Newswire reported.

Another example of official disconnect occurred in August, when Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told a delegation of journalists from Sindh province that there was complete press freedom in Pakistan. Just weeks later, political activists beat senior journalist Tajammul Hussain and stole a bag containing his notebooks in full view of police at a polling station in the Sindh capital, Karachi, according to the Pakistan Press Foundation.

After revelations that two suicide bombers involved in the July 7 attack on the London transit system had traveled to the cities of Karachi and Lahore in November 2004, the Sindh government launched a crackdown on conservative newspapers. It raided the offices of several Karachi-based publications in July and banned three weekly newspapers in August for creating “sectarian extremism and hatred.” Several editors were arrested, including Mohammad Tahir, editor and publisher of the conservative weekly Wajood. Tahir was held for almost two months on charges of publishing “hate material” before being granted bail. Tahir told the BBC in a jailhouse interview that police cited his criticism of the government as the reason for his arrest. “They never mentioned anything about hate material,” he said. The Sindh High Court lifted the ban on the weeklies in late August, but the charges against Tahir stood.

The government continued to use its advertising expenditures to pressure news outlets. It discontinued ads in two papers from the conservative Nawa-i-Waqt publishing group from May through August in retaliation for critical articles in the publications, according to local journalists’ groups. Newspapers are highly dependent on government ads; agencies responsible for railroads, telecommunications, and highway construction can provide as much as 50 percent of many newspapers’ ad sales. Private companies frequently follow the government’s example and withdraw their own ads, according to local sources. In 2004, the government cut advertising in the group’s papers for 10 months.

The provincial government of Sindh stood out on this front, too. Beginning in May, it withheld advertising revenue from the national daily Dawn as punishment for critical reporting, media sources told CPJ.

Foreign journalists were restricted in their movement and required to apply for visas for travel outside of the capital, Islamabad. In August, three European documentary filmmakers were held incommunicado for 16 days in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, after taking video of what turned out to be a military compound.

Local journalist and fixer Khawar Mehdi Rizvi was vindicated in April, when a Quetta antiterrorism court acquitted him of sedition charges. The charges stemmed from his work in December 2003 with two journalists from the French newsweekly L’Express. Rizvi traveled with them to Quetta, in southwestern Pakistan, where they reported on Taliban activity in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Rizvi had been held incommunicado for five weeks after his initial arrest. He left the country in late 2004.

A positive trend came in the broadcasting sector. A dozen new radio stations were launched, including several dedicated to news; the government also awarded licenses to 20 cable television channels, although all must broadcast from outside the country. State Minister for Information Anisa Zeb Tahirkheli announced in June that the government was installing transmitters nationwide to help radio station development. Eighty-four FM stations were broadcasting by the government’s account, but the transmission of radio news was still restricted. In April, authorities canceled the license of FM 103 in Lahore after it aired hourly Urdu-language bulletins from the BBC World Service, the BBC reported. The station’s license, they said, did not allow news broadcasts.

In November, officers from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) raided another FM 103 station, this one in Karachi, seizing transmission equipment and halting broadcasts after the station allegedly violated the ban on rebroadcast of foreign news. The station had aired an Urdu-language BBC program about the October earthquake.

A bill strengthening PEMRA passed in the lower house of the National Assembly in May, alarming press freedom advocates. It would allow PEMRA to ban news outlets in the name of “national interest,” “national security,” or “vulgarity,” and violations could be punishable by three years imprisonment and fines of 10 million rupees (US$160,000). The bill lapsed before being brought in front of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, and was referred to a parliamentary mediation committee at the end of the year. The bill’s future remained uncertain.

The investigation into the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl continued, with two notable arrests. Police detained Mohammed Sohail in March in Karachi and said that Sohail had confessed to involvement in the murder. He was suspected of filming Pearl’s murder. Another suspect, Hashim Qadeer, was arrested in the eastern city of Gujranwala in July. Qadeer was accused of setting up the first meeting between Pearl and his kidnappers. The four men who were convicted in Pearl’s murder in 2002 were again denied appeal hearings.