Pakistani government moves to silence broadcasters

New York, June 4, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a presidential ordinance enacted on Sunday that gives the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) the power to halt broadcastersí transmissions, close offices, seize equipment, and revoke licenses. The measure also increases fines for violations of PEMRA regulations from 1 million rupees (US$16,665) to 10 million rupees (US$166,650), according to The Associated Press, the BBC, and local media reports.

The presidential ordinance, which becomes law because the National Assembly is not in session, came a day after PEMRA sent letters to all the countryís broadcasters urging them not to air programs that “encourage” violence or promote “antistate attitude,” according to the AP.

The actions follow on recent warnings from President Pervez Musharraf and other government leaders concerned about live coverage of the political crisis over the March 9 ouster of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. As rallies for Chaudhry have grown larger, they have generated calls for Musharraf to step down or give up his role as army chief before presidential elections later this year. The government called on broadcasters to stop airing live broadcasts of the demonstrations, saying the coverage instigated the crowds.

“This presidential decree is another brick in the wall of censorship that the government is building to shield itself at a time of political upheaval,” said Joel Simon, CPJís executive director. “We call on the government to rescind the decree immediately.”

The ordinance also comes as the government has halted cable distribution of three independent broadcasters: Aaj TV, ARY One TV, and Geo News TV. Cable carriage of the three channels began shutting down on Sunday night, the Pakistan Broadcasters Association said. According to CNN, cable operators had warned national and international broadcasters that their channels would be blocked if they aired anything critical of the Pakistani government. Geo News Managing Director Nasir Baig Chugtai told CPJ that cable transmission of Geo stopped on Sunday evening.

“The blocking of these independent broadcasters from cable distribution is naked intimidation,” Simon added. “Aaj TV, ARY One TV, and Geo News TV must be allowed to resume broadcasting in Pakistan.”

ARY One and Geo are based in Dubai; Aaj operates a terrestrial station in Pakistan. All rely heavily on cable carriers for distribution, although they can also be picked up by satellite. Cable companies had warned over the weekend that they were coming under pressure from the government to stop carrying the signals and most, if not all, seem to have complied.