News Analysis: BBC Yanked from State TV

New regime’s print media policy unclear
Islamabad, October 19, 1999 — In spite of the reassurances regarding press freedom in Pakistan given by the Chief Executive, General Pervez Musharraf, apprehensions still lurk in the minds of journalists here and abroad. While only time will tell if the Pakistani press will be free from “press advice” and other restraints, so far the print media at least is enjoying complete freedom.

The only visible restriction since the removal of the Nawaz Sharif government last week is that BBC has been taken off the air at STN, one of the state-owned TV channels (there is no private broadcasting in Pakistan). Sources at STN said that did air the BBC for the first two days after the coup. But then they received instructions from Pakistan Television to take it off the air. “So we did just that and will not revert to showing the BBC until we are told to do so,” said one source.

PTV left no paper trail, say our sources, instead conveying its instructions verbally to STN. Viewers without satellite dishes now have no way to watch the only source of independent news currently available on television in Pakistan “The Chief Executive says that he would support private television and radio programs, yet [the authorities] cannot stomach the views on the BBC. How independent will the current affairs and news programs be if these channels do start operating?” asked one viewer.

Meanwhile the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based organization that works to defend media freedom around the world, is concerned that a military takeover in Pakistan may lead to the imposition of tight controls over reporting here, particularly in light of the army’s quick assertion of control over the country’s broadcast media.

In a recent letter to General Musharraf, CPJ wrote, “In the 52 years since Pakistan’s independence from the British, the nation has undergone 25 years of army rule marked by the erosion of civil liberties. Previous military dictators have imposed strict censorship regulations, with harsh penalties for journalists whose reporting was not to their liking.”

At this time there is no reason not to believe the Chief Executive’s assurances. But as the military government lays out its policies and announces who will be joining the new administration, independent journalists will undoubtedly have more to say.

For starters there are still dozens of tax and other legal cases registered against independent journalists. Will the new military government take the initiative to quash them? The case of Rehmat Shah Afridi, for example, has been dragging on for months [last spring the Sharif government filed narcotics smuggling charges against Afridi, the publisher of The Frontier Post,as part of a broad legal assault against independent Pakistani media.] If a cleanup operation is in the cards, the military government must consider all these cases.

Mariana Baabar is a reporter with the English-language daily The News.