Pakistan paper under threat

July 18, 2008

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani
c/o Ambassador Husain Haqqani
3517 International Court
Washington, DC 20008

By facsimile: 202 686-1544

Mr. Prime Minister:

We are deeply concerned about the safety of the staff of the Urdu-language Daily Aaj Kal newspaper. According to Najam Sethi, the paper’s editor-in-chief, clerics at the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad have repeatedly issued inflammatory statements aimed at the newspaper and its staff. The accusations leave them vulnerable to attack by militant groups at a time when civil violence is on the rise.

Sethi is a respected journalist who was awarded CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1999. He is also editor-in-chief of Aaj Kal‘s English-language sister paper, the Daily Times.
According to Sethi and numerous media reports, Lal Masjid clerics and their supporters assembled in Islamabad on July 11 following the one-year anniversary of the siege there by government forces. Your government has said that 102 people, including 11 security personnel, were killed in the siege.
On July 9, Aaj Kal published a cartoon depicting Umme Hassan, wife of cleric Abdul Aziz, who had been jailed after last year’s fighting. The cartoon showed her calling for resistance among her followers and their children, according to local news reports that describe the cartoon. Hassan, who had led the women’s branch of the well-known seminary, which police closed after last year’s raid, is on record making statements similar to the ones the cartoon portrays, according to Reuters.
Hassan and other groups affiliated with the mosque demonstrated on July 11 against the cartoon and the broader anti-extremism and anti-terrorism editorial policy of Aaj Kal.
Hassan held a press conference on Monday in Islamabad in which she characterized the cartoon as an affront to Islam equivalent to the Danish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad published last year, according Sethi. On Wednesday, Hassan attended a mullah’s conference in Lahore and repeated strong statements classifying the newspaper as anti-Islamic, Sethi said. She has “accused us of blaspheming and including us in the category of anti-Islamic elements who attacked the Lal Masjid a year ago. Those people are now the target of suicide bombers,” Sethi said.

Following the July 11 demonstration, anonymous callers threatened staff in the paper’s Islamabad offices. They warned us “not to test their patience,” Sethi said. After Wednesday’s statements, more threats were called in to Aaj Kal offices in Lahore, according to Sethi. The paper has offices in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi.
CPJ takes these threats very seriously. Made in the context of the widespread civil unrest and violence in Pakistan, anyone who is considered an enemy of the mosque’s supporters, particularly those who work for a civilian media organization, is at great risk. We feel it is imperative that your government take immediate steps to protect journalists and media outlets who dare to take openly critical stances, even when it comes to criticizing clergy.
We note that Minister of Information Sherry Rehman and Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif have condemned the threats, according to Pakistani news reports, and that Minister Rehman has promised to help increase the paper’s security at its offices. We urge you to ensure that all steps necessary to ensuring the safety of the newspaper’s staff are taken, and that these threats are fully investigated and addressed under the law. Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director
The Committee to Protect Journalists