CPJ concerned about press freedom during Pakistani elections

New York, February 15, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the safety of journalists who confront restrictions placed on the media in the run-up to Pakistani parliamentary elections on February 18.

“We know the commitment of Pakistani journalists to serving the interests of their viewers and readers, and we fear that the government will punish them if they attempt to fully cover the elections,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “At the same time, we know the government no longer can guarantee security in many areas where voting will take place, and that journalists might also be targeted by pro- and anti-government forces. We call on President Musharraf to not only guarantee fair elections, but to ensure that journalists reporting on them can do so in safety,” Simon said. 

In the weeks before the voting, the government has made it clear that it will punish media organizations that refuse to adhere to its rules for covering the elections.

The government has declared many constituencies to be out of bounds for media coverage, citing security reasons. Local and foreign media coverage in sensitive areas—like the North West Frontier Provinces and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and in Sindh and Baluchistan regions—has been heavily restricted, and most of these areas will not be accessible to foreign observers. 

On February 5, interim Minster of Information and Broadcasting Nisar Memon was widely quoted in local and international media as having warned the media to “stay within limits” or face disciplinary action. He insisted that journalists conform to the government’s “code of conduct,” which most broadcasters were forced to sign before they were allowed to return to air after being shut down on November 3, soon after President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution.

Memon was quoted as saying that TV stations that did not follow the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) code could face a similar situation to the November 3 broadcast shutdown. Though all the channels eventually broadcast again, many did so only after taking anchors and journalists critical of the government off the air and curtailing live coverage of demonstrations and other events that showed opposition to the government.   

Such a threat must be taken seriously after the government’s decision to remove independent broadcaster Aaj TV from air for more than 12 hours on the night of February 7. The move came after a prominent government critic, Nusrat Javed, whose own program had been taken off air at the demand of the government, appeared on a late-night talk show.

PEMRA has also warned broadcasters not to air projected results or candidates’ standings until the results have been made public by election officials or otherwise violate the code of conduct they were forced to sign.

At the same time that the government placed restrictions on the broadcast media soon after November 3, it issued amendments to the 2002 regulations governing print as well. The new amendments provide for jail sentences of up to three years for print or broadcast journalists who are deemed to have ridiculed the president or the military.
On February 14, Information Minister Memon told a press conference in Islamabad that “free media was vital for democracy” according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan (APP). Memon also said that “independent media in the country was playing a pivotal role by ensuring that only balanced and authentic reports were aired,” APP reported.
CPJ welcomes Minister Memon’s remarks and calls on him to press his government to ensure that journalists are indeed free to do their jobs, without the fear of prosecution and intimidation that has been the reality faced by Pakistani journalists under the Musharraf government.