Pakistan Supreme Court moves to silence media

New York, May 12, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Pakistani Supreme Court to drop its efforts to control media coverage. The court today ordered Geo TV, the country’s most popular private broadcaster, and its print affiliate, Jang Group, to present all video clips and news articles dating to November 3, 2007, on the controversial issue of reinstating judges sacked last year by President Pervez Musharraf.

The court set a May 22 deadline for Geo and Jang to meet the demand or be held in contempt of court, according to Pakistani media reports. The court said Geo and the Daily Jang, the group’s flagship Urdu-language newspaper, had erroneously reported that Supreme Court Justice Muhammad Nawaz Abbasi had taken part in a recent meeting between government ministers and high court justices. The court, which issued the order on its initiative, is currently controlled by Musharraf appointees.

The court did back down from an earlier, more far-reaching order. On Friday, it directed Geo TV and the Jang Group to stop reporting entirely on the judicial reinstatement issue. The court vacated the original order today after a raucous hearing in which several journalists vowed to disobey the directive.

“The Supreme Court’s decision threatens to reverse the movement toward renewed media freedom that came after elections three months ago,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The court should be working to uphold freedom of the press, not silencing it whenever a controversial issue emerges in Pakistan.”

Soon after today’s hearing, Minister of Information Sherry Rehman told Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, that the government did not support the court’s decision and would work to resolve the issue. She made the statement on Abbas’ political discussion program on ARY One World TV.

The judicial issue is a sensitive one in Pakistan. The new coalition government led by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has split over the issue of reinstating the judges. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who supports reinstatement of the judges, has left the cabinet as a result of the split but has not withdrawn his party from the coalition.

The split has threatened Pakistan’s move back to democracy after eight years of military rule under Musharraf. At the same time in November that Musharraf sacked 60 judges who had resisted his government, he closed down all private news broadcasters—about 40—all of which are distributed by cable. Geo was the last major broadcaster to resume broadcasting after it resisted government pressure to sign a code of conduct.