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Pakistan: Media Muffled Under Musharraf's Emergency

By Zofeen Ebrahim

08 November, 2007
Inter Press service

KARACHI, Nov 7 (IPS) - "I have the habit of saying what I have to and will continue to do so," Syed Talat Hussain, anchor of a popular current affairs programme on Aaj TV, says in an interview from Islamabad.

Pakistan's television industry, save for the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV), came to a grinding halt after the government blocked all transmission early Saturday evening, as President Gen. Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule on this South Asian country.

There are 30 news channels in the country. Aaj TV was among the first to be raided late Saturday evening by the police at the behest of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. According to Hussain, about 30 men without search warrants barged into the premises and began tampering with the network's equipment.

Journalists tried to prevent the police from taking away their outdoor broadcasting vans by sitting atop their vehicles and deflating the tyres.

But this was the latest challenge to media in Pakistan. In the past six months, observers have noted a consistent muzzling of the media by the government.

According to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the government took action against TV channels and FM radios by raiding their offices, issuing show cause notices, and confiscating equipment on several occasions.

Some 21 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since Musharraf took over in a bloodless coup in 1999. "An explosion in the number of independent TV channels boosted pluralism and the quality of news," noted the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its 2007 annual report. "But the security forces radicalised their methods of repression: a score of journalists were kidnapped and tortured by the military.’’

In his address to the nation announcing emergency, Musharraf used growing militancy and violence as an excuse for having to take the extraordinary step of declaring emergency rule.

He also accused the judiciary of "overstepping the limits of judicial authority" and working at cross-purposes with the government. And he minced no words in pointing out his displeasure with the "irresponsible" way the media, especially the electronic media, was handling and showcasing the crises Pakistan was beset with.

But, amid the political mayhem, the silence of the political parties has been deafening. "They have been neutered and will not come out on the streets and the government will not crack down on them either. The insurgencies in Waziristan and Swat (the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan) will also continue," said Ayaz Amir, a senior columnist with 'Dawn', a national English-language daily.

"The media, especially the electronic media, has been accused of sensationalising, and I daresay, they may have, at times. But that is for the viewers to decide," said Zohra Yusuf of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, finding the high-handed manner of the government rather "scary".

"It's like shooting the messenger instead of dealing with the present crises, like going back in time (to the harsh military rule of Zia-ul-Haq from1977-1988)," Yusuf said.

Shortly after Musharraf ordered the suspension of the constitution, curbs were imposed on the media through amendments in two ordinances. These bar them from printing or broadcasting "anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organ of the state."

Restraints have also been put on the media from printing or broadcasting material that is likely "jeopardise or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order."

"These curbs are more for the electronic than the print media," said Amir. "Musharraf's claim of free media is inconsistent with the new situation that has arisen." Still, he foresees newspapers exhibiting a "certain amount of caution" through self-censorship.

Amir predicts that print journalism may have to "hide behind some form of symbolism", which will be a challenge as "there will be a greater need to speak out" just like during the Zia regime. "It's like revisiting the past and is indeed very sad, more so because it makes Pakistan look bad, not Musharraf," he added. "This is a tough one (putting the channels off air), conceded an irate Hussain. "He's (Musharraf) used the most lethal weapon this time, because he has none left in his armoury." Many pointed out that his programme -- 'Live with Talat Hussain' -- and his channel, though not singled out by the general during his address to the nation, was probably one of the reasons for Musharraf's ire.

"I'd be surprised if mine were not one of them," he said, having met with much hostility from the president's quarters in the past few months, especially during the suspension and then reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. This move had received an unprecedented support from the electronic media.

Chaudhry is now under house arrest for refusing to sign the Provisional Constitution Order -- normally the first step before imposition of martial law, say legal experts.

Musharraf's attempts to gag cyberspace, however, have proven futile. Minute-by-minute dissemination of information about the arrests of rights activists and lawyers, their whereabouts and the sharing of information on how to gain access to blocked channels through the Internet is underway like never before.

Journalists are far from demoralised. "I and most of my colleagues are in high spirits despite all the threats. I have been told that I must behave, otherwise I will be arrested, but these tactics don't scare me," Hamid Mir, executive editor of Geo TV, told IPS over telephone from Islamabad.

"Musharraf claims to have given media its freedom, but he cannot be farthest from the truth. It is the constitution of Pakistan that has given freedom to media and that is why he suspended it, I am telling you, he and his foreign masters are the ultimate losers. Pakistanis have realised that they have to choose between Musharraf and Pakistan, and they will go for Pakistan," said an emotionally charged Mir.

Ali Dayan Hasan, a Lahore-based researcher for the Washington-based Human Rights Watch agreed: "It was not Musharraf's largesse but Pakistan's PR disaster during the Kargil war that led to the emergence of independent electronic media."

Meantime, media owners have been conspicuous by their very invisibility.

"While we are resisting the recent clampdown and will not stop till the government withdraws its curbs, the media owners are negotiating with the government," said Mazhar Abbas, secretary general of the PFUJ. He fears they will accede to government demands as they have done in the past.

"It's a price the owners should be willing to pay," said Yusuf. "And if they don't, in the long run, they will have more to lose in terms of credibility."

"They (media barons) will make up with the government," said Shamim-ur-Rehman, president of the Karachi Union of Journalists. "It's unfair to start a protest and jeopardise the lives and employment of journalists, if the TV and newspaper owners are not standing alongside us. I don't want the journalists rotting in jails with no support from their employers."


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