In May, he was one of three journalists who found bullets in white envelopes attached to their cars when they came out of a late night meeting at the Karachi press club. He was on the hit list of the Mohajir Rabita Council, an ethnic political group in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, which is allied with President Pervez Musharraf. Abbas was also charged by police earlier this year after protesting the closure of three independent TV channels for reporting on anti-Musharraf demonstrations.
At the union, Abbas is leading the opposition against the Musharraf administration's attempts to silence press criticism of the faltering military government. As an AFP correspondent in Karachi , he covered the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal South Asia Bureau Chief Daniel Pearl in 2002, and the following investigations and trials.
Following are transcribed excerpts from a videotaped interview with Abbas, airing as part of CPJ's International Press Freedom Awards Dinner:
Abbas: I think the Pakistani press will survive. Definitely. Journalists are ready to fight in Pakistan. In the last two, three years we have seen that whenever government tried to suppress the press. Journalists always come on the street [to protest]. ... But the real threat is in the tribal areas. Journalists there are leaving their profession, you know. They are leaving with their families to safer places. And the problem in the tribal areas is not only from the government side, but from pressure groups. ... It's the hottest story. I mean people around the world are looking for stories in the tribal area.
Q: It's an international story.
Abbas: Yeah, and the journalists working there are working in the worst atmosphere. ... I know journalists who have been told to leave this profession. And there are journalists who left this profession because they are really scared. And their families have been targeted. It's almost impossible to report from those areas. And that is why even the foreign media is fast losing stingers in the tribal areas.
Q: You think that's going to spread to other parts of Pakistan?
Abbas: It can. It's happening in Baluchistan. ... Different pressure groups are using different methods even in the urban areas to put pressures on the government. So journalists in Pakistan, you know, they are facing pressure from the government and the pressure groups. ... In Pakistan, cameras are insured but not the cameramen.
Q: Are things going to get worse for journalists in Pakistan?
Abbas: I think economically, with TV channels, our economic position is getting better. It's a huge media now in Pakistan, you know. Pakistani journalists have come a long way to this stage. ... What can be worse for a journalist than reporting in Iraq. But still the journalists are going there. Still they are working there. In Afghanistan, they are still going there. Pakistan is not such a bad place for journalism. There are problems, I mean. And we are fighting [against them].
Thank you so much for this award. I am deeply honored. I accept it not for myself, but for the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, which 50 years ago laid the foundation for safeguarding press freedom in Pakistan.
Unfortunately, our work is still not done. Only today I heard the disturbing news that 180 journalists had been detained in Karachi mainly because they were demanding an end to media curbs imposed by the government. Six of them were injured by police. Three received head injuries and had to go to hospital. It appears that the government has launched a "war on terror" against the media since November 3 when President Musharraf promulgated a state of emergency to the fight against the terrorists. The country's two biggest independent television channels are still off the air. GEO TV and my station, ARYONE WORLD, have the largest viewership in Pakistan. Their satellite retransmission from Dubai has been blocked since Islamabad put pressure on the government of the United Arab Emirates.
I am sure you understand that it was a difficult decision for me to come to the U.S. at this time, but my colleagues at the PFUJ agreed that I should come and tell you what is going on.
This period of emergency rule is the toughest ever for journalists in my country, but we continue to lead the struggle for a free press. For the last 17 days we have been on the streets, protesting, setting up camps, hoisting black flags on press clubs and leading demonstrations -- as well as covering them as part of our job. More rallies across the country are planned. Scores of demonstrations have already been held in different parts of Pakistan including even the most remote areas.
Despite the government's ban on TV channels and new anti-press laws, I say with pride that if we compare the Pakistani media to any other in the Islamic world, Pakistan's is still vibrant and not afraid to speak out against the government. But there are new trends of violence. Killings of journalists have increased -- in the last seven years by my count at least 24 journalists had been killed, an unprecedented number compared to previous regimes. We have counted over 100 cases of violence against journalists. Ten journalists have been kidnapped, most of them most likely by the government.
We face intimidation too from non-government political and religious groups who do not welcome independent or critical coverage of their actions.
In the face of such continuous oppression, harassment and violence, we the journalists of Pakistan, call on you here tonight and our colleagues in the rest of the world for support. We need you to keep coming to Pakistan, to keep reporting on what it happening, and write editorials and commentaries. Help us to keep independent media alive in my country by reminding those in power, or those who may seek power, that they cannot kill journalists and suppress news with impunity. There will be a political price to pay. Not just at home, but also abroad.
Thank you for your help.
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