Amid growing political dissent, Pakistan aims to curtail live TV coverage

New York, June 1, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about reports that the Pakistani government will seek to restrict live television broadcasts of anti-government demonstrations.

The reports, from several local news outlets and sources, come as news outlets face increasing official pressure for covering the street demonstrations sparked by President Pervez Musharraf’s ouster of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. The judge is seeking reinstatement after being removed March 9 on allegations of misconduct. After a live national television broadcast of a Bar Association seminar on the issue, during which the audience chanted anti-army slogans, Musharraf and Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani both made critical remarks about the event and called for Pakistanis to respect the military.

On Thursday, Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told a press conference that existing regulations covering live broadcasts will be strictly enforced. The Nation on Friday quoted Durrani as saying that private TV channels must seek prior permission to cover sensitive live events and that Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority rules prohibit the broadcast of programs “against the armed forces and judiciary.”

The Dawn daily, citing unnamed Information Ministry officials, reported Friday that the government “was planning to make it mandatory for televisions channels to seek prior permission for live coverage of outdoor events.” The newspaper said that “if applied strictly, the government may restrict all live coverage, particularly of events like opposition rallies or events relating to the judicial crisis.”

“Restricting live outside broadcasts is blatant censorship that undermines the government’s repeated claims of fostering a free press,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Such censorship, coupled with the threats and violence directed toward journalists in recent months has put Pakistani media under tremendous pressure at a time when the country most needs a free and unfettered press.”

In a statement issued Friday, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) “deplored the government decision to impose a ban on live coverage by private TV channels in violation of Article 19 of the constitution.” The PFUJ said it will challenge the rulings in court.

In an April 24 letter, CPJ called on Musharraf to “to reverse the government’s recent anti-press actions and allow for greater public criticism of your administration in the media.” In May, CPJ named Pakistan one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom after documenting a series of anti-media incidents in 2007.