Media Muffled Under Musharraf's Emergency
By Zofeen Ebrahim
08 November, 2007
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
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
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
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
"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),"
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
"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
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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