Attacks on the Press 2007: Pakistan

The December 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto plunged the nation into further turmoil after months of violent unrest and a bitterly contested state of emergency. An aggressive domestic press corps was in the middle of the momentous events, questioning government assertions and being targeted by government censorship. Leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi in the waning days of the parliamentary campaign, Bhutto’s vehicle was attacked by a gunman and a suicide bomber. The government tried to claim that Bhutto died by hitting her head on the car’s sunroof, but Pakistani news media published images of a gun-wielding assassin just feet from the former prime minister. Bhutto supporters blamed the government for lax security at the rally and even complicity in the killing.

The assassination punctuated a year of growing conflict and plummeting popularity for Pervez Musharraf, the general who had led Pakistan through eight years of military-backed rule. On November 3, Musharraf tightened his hold on power by declaring a state of emergency, suspending the constitution, dissolving the Supreme Court, and shutting all independent broadcasters. Musharraf later stood down as head of the army and lifted the emergency order in moves designed to assuage international concerns. But the parliamentary elections scheduled for early January were postponed following Bhutto’s assassination.

The crisis peaked in late year after months of anti-Musharraf demonstrations, mounting deaths from the militant Islamic insurgency, and clashes between the president and the Supreme Court. Musharraf declared the emergency just as the high court was due to rule on challenges to his new term as president. Members of the national and provincial assemblies had elected Musharraf president on October 6, but opposition politicians argued that he was ineligible to run while remaining as army chief. With the court dissolved, a new one hand-picked by the president, and the media muzzled, however, Musharraf had cleared away obstacles to a new term.

Under the emergency order, Musharraf imposed a series of restrictions on press coverage, but television broadcasters were his primary target. He had apparently come to view the country’s 50 cable stations as a major threat to his rule. In March, when Musharraf sacked Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in a dispute over the release of 61 terrorism suspects, the stations’ live coverage of the ensuing demonstrations, their free-ranging political commentary, and their animated call-in programs had been the president’s main media challenge.

It was a strange situation. The cable broadcasters, as well as other parts of Pakistan’s expanding media universe, were in large part Musharraf’s own creation. Having allowed the stations, many of them owned by large media groups, to blossom under his rule, he appeared surprised and angered when they decided to pursue independent journalism rather than do the government’s bidding. As the broadcast ban continued through November–only state-run Pakistan TV remained on the air–the independent stations lost millions in advertising.

With the shutdown taking a financial toll on stations, the government pressured owners to sign a 14-page “code of conduct” before they could return to the air. The code prohibits material that “defames or brings into ridicule the head of state” and imposes jail terms of up to three years for journalists who violate the ban. Geo TV, owned by the Jang Group, and ARY One World TV, an Urdu- and Hindi-language news channel, were among the longest holdouts. But the stations were undercut by the Dubai government, which discontinued their satellite retransmission under intense pressure from Musharraf’s administration. Though the two stations’ broadcasts could not be seen in Pakistan during the shutdown, they had continued to reach global audiences via the satellite services of Dubai Media City, a state-sponsored, regional media hub.

Most independent television stations were back on the air by mid-December–and they soon leapt into wall-to-wall coverage of the Bhutto assassination.

Musharraf’s antimedia policies did not appear to have cost him U.S. backing, although U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson did visit the shuttered TV stations and express support for press freedom. By the time the emergency was lifted, the Bush administration and other Western governments did not seem eager to pressure Musharraf to ease media restrictions. Talat Hussain, a popular talk-show host whose program was canceled, told The New York Times in December that Musharraf was “getting away with it, really, because the Western support is there again. … There isn’t enough pressure.”

Owais Aslam Ali, who runs the media support group Pakistan Press Foundation in Karachi, said he understood why broadcasters bore the brunt of Musharraf’s ire: “The government has to control 50 or more channels now, and, given the competition, the news teams don’t miss stories. They tend to drive national media coverage.” With overall literacy at about 50 percent, according to U.N. figures, television and radio broadcasts reach a wider audience than Pakistan’s many vernacular newspapers and magazines. But Ali also saw a downside to the predominance of television: “Because the electronic media are so young … there were laxer standards. They were showing body parts and all sorts of shocking pictures after terrorist bombs, for example.”

The power of television had become evident to Musharraf in the spring, when citizens joined thousands of lawyers who had taken to the streets to protest his sacking of Chief Justice Chaudhry. The privately owned Royal TV, which broadcast in Islamabad, was the first to fall victim; government regulators ordered the station off the air in April after coverage of the demonstrations.

The same month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) threatened to close Aaj TV after it aired programming critical of the government’s role in the Chaudhry dispute. That did not happen, but on May 12, amid violence between anti- and pro-government groups in Karachi, Aaj’s studios came under gunfire from what media reports identified as pro-government supporters. No injuries were reported, and the station remained open.

It was around this time that the government’s tactics appeared to be shifting: Rather than targeting individual journalists as it had in the past, it began aiming directly at media houses, harassing them legally, financially, and through attacks on their facilities. On March 16, riot police used tear gas and batons against staff as they swept through the Islamabad offices of the Jang Group, which houses Geo TV, Pakistan’s leading private TV station, and the newspapers the Daily Jang and The News. The raid came less than a day after the government ordered Geo not to air coverage of street protests sparked by Chaudhry’s ouster.

The Supreme Court had its own hand in media repression in May, when it issued a directive to print and electronic media to avoid “any interference” in the Chaudhry dispute. Violations would be considered “contempt of court,” the official Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported. For an institution sworn to uphold Pakistan’s constitution, the court’s censorship order was shockingly broad. “Discussions, comments, or write-ups that are likely to interfere with the legal process, ridicule, scandalize or malign the court or any of its judges, or that touch on the merits of the case are strictly prohibited,” the APP quoted the court’s directive as saying. Under Pakistani law, a contempt citation could lead to imprisonment.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border remained virtually off-limits to foreign journalists. Local reporters at the Peshawar Press Club, a traditional jumping-off point to the tribal areas, told CPJ that conditions had worsened, and that even the most experienced journalists had curtailed their activity. Reporters remained under assault from government security forces, criminals, and foreign elements–usually Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters who had moved into the area from Uzbekistan, Chechnya, or Afghanistan.

Sohail Qalander, Peshawar editor for the Daily Express, the country’s second-largest Urdu-language newspaper, was abducted in January and held for seven weeks by “criminal and tribal elements” in the Khyber Agency of Pakistan’s lawless North West Frontier Province, the newspaper’s managing editor, Abid Abdullah, told CPJ. In April, foreign militants killed the brother, father, uncle, and cousin of Inkishaf reporter Din Muhammed at the family home in South Waziristan, colleagues told CPJ. The attack was an apparent reprisal for Muhammed’s reporting in the town of Wana–a place so dangerous that few journalists dared to enter.

Another story with potentially long-term implications continued to play out, as Islamic militant influence spread from the tribal areas into adjacent regions. After a four-month truce with the government ended in late September, militant Islamists took over most of the Swat Valley, once a tourist attraction known for its natural beauty and skiing, located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Islamabad. The Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law), led by cleric Maulana Fazlullah, had been in open rebellion against the Pakistani government for years. By November, the militants had set up a “parallel government,” with Islamic courts imposing Sharia, or Islamic, law in at least 59 villages. Fazlullah had used a string of pirate FM radio stations to build his power base over several years.

All of these attacks–from the government, from political factions, from the judiciary, from Islamic militants–led CPJ to rank Pakistan among the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom. Twelve Pakistani journalists have been killed since the death of American reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Only Pearl’s death was thoroughly investigated, the findings publicly reported, and the perpetrators brought to trial. At least 15 more journalists were abducted in that time, with the government’s own Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence suspected in many of the cases. In 2007, five journalists were killed in direct relation to their work:

• Mehboob Khan, 22, a freelance photographer, died on April 28 in a suicide bomb attack in Charsadda that was aimed at Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao. Khan had started working as a journalist just a few months before.

• Noor Hakim Khan, a correspondent for Daily Pakistan, was among five people killed by a roadside bomb in the Bajaur region of the North West Frontier Province on June 2. Khan was traveling in an official convoy that might have been targeted.

• On July 3, crossfire between government forces and students from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad took the life of Javed Khan, a journalist with Markaz and DM Digital TV. He was shot in the chest and neck. The source of the fatal shots was not clear.

• Muhammad Arif, a cameraman for ARY One World TV, was among 139 people killed in an October 19 bombing during a Karachi political rally celebrating Bhutto’s homecoming.

• Zubair Ahmed Mujahid, correspondent for the national Urdu-language daily Jang, was shot in the southern province of Sindh on November 23. Local journalists believed their colleague was slain because of his investigative reporting.