A Difficult Year For Press Freedom 1995 by Owais Aslam Ali
1995 seemed to be a year when the Pakistani press confronted one crises after the other. Not only did Pakistani journalists have to contend with to the harsh government attitude but also had to suffer violence from political groups and terrorists. In addition, the national media had to deal with an alarming level of disinformation which threatened to undermine the very integrity of the profession.
The underlying reason for the pressures on the press is the deteriorating relations between the government and the opposition parties which have led to a dramatic reversal of the decade-old trend towards a freer press. Worst affected have been newspapers and journalists of the Sindh province that has been at the centre of the anti-government campaign led by the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), the main opposition party of the urban areas of the province.
HARASSMENT OF JOURNALISTS BY LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES
There have been numerous instances of attacks against journalists by members of law enforcement agencies.
Farhan Effendi, the Hyderabad correspondent of Urdu daily “Parcham”, Karachi, was abducted in Hyderabad on September 14 by armed men in plain clothes. A day later he was brought to the police station and it was revealed that Mr. Effendi had been picked by up by personnel of para-military Rangers force. Mr. Effendi told journalists that he was severely beaten up and was kept blind folded with hands tied to the back. Daily “Parcham” is considered to be the mouthpiece of the MQM.
Mr. Effendi has been charged of carrying an illegal Kalashinkov rifle and involvement in terrorist activities. Mr. Effendi remains in detention awaiting the start of his trial. His case will be tried by the special court for terrorist activities. His bail hearing scheduled for 16 October could not be held because the judge in the case was absent on that day. The Hyderabad Press Club and Hyderabad Union of Journalists (HUJ) have expressed concern over the abduction of Mr. Effendi and the registration of false case against him. It has also condemned the third degree tactics and torture of the journalists.
During the night of 16 August, police raided the houses of Razia Bhatti, editor of the monthly “Newsline”, and of Zahid Qureshi, editor of the daily “Parcham”.
Police raided Bhatti’s house at 1:30 a.m. and demanded the whereabouts of reporter Mohammed Hanif, who had written an article about Kamaluddin Azfar, the newly appointed governor of Sindh province. Police also searched the offices of “Newsline” twice on 17 August, but were unable to find either Bhatti or Hanif. The governor objected to an unflattering article about him published in the magazine and filed criminal charges against the reporter, editor and publisher of the magazine. However, the governor withdrew the complaint after protests from national and international media organisations.
The same day, police also raided the home of Zahid Qureshi, chief editor of the daily “Parcham”. According to news reports, police surrounded the house and broke into Qureshi’s bedroom. When they discovered Qureshi was not in the house, they instead took his brother, Wajid Qureshi. Zahid Qureshi was on bail following his earlier arrest on June 2, along with Mohammed Ali, the printer of the paper.
On October 21 police arrested the publishers and printers of two magazines for publishing obscene material. Those arrested include Mohammed Yaqoob and Mohammed Anwar Zaki, publisher and printer of “Movie” and Mohammed Yousuf and Syed Nasir Ali, publisher and printer of “Jhankar”.
On April 24, personnel of the para-military Rangers in Karachi blindfolded 70-year old journalist Saadat Rizvi along with dozens of other residents of the area and kept them under detention. During detention Mr. Rizvi was humiliated to the extent that he was made to take off his shirt. Even after Mr. Rizvi identified himself as a journalist he was treated like a criminal.
Journalists and press photographers covering the disturbances are frequently manhandled by law enforcement agencies and political groups. For example, on March 11, police, para-military forces and intelligence agencies in Karachi beat up and detained press photographers who had gone to cover the scene of a rocket attack on the house of well-known politician, Pir Syed Mardan Ali Shah. The cameras of some of the photographers were smashed.
There has been an alarming upsurge of harassment of rural journalists Sindh where seven journalists were arrested in the second half of August. In Badin police arrested Ghulam Mustafa Jamali of Sindhi language daily “Kawish”. Local newsmen who claim that Jamali was arrested because of his articles on the deteriorating law and order situation of the city and the administration’s failure to control it.
Others who were arrested include, Nisar Kashkhley of daily “Ibrat”; Liaquay Norani, Sadaruddin Umrani, Abdul Hafeez, Ghulam Mustafa Jamali, all four of daily “Kawish”; Asad Lala Pathan, daily “Inthekhab”, Sukkur; and Imtiaz Memon, son of “Kawish” corespondent in New Saeedabad.
Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) on September 4, passed a resolution expressing concern at the plight of newsmen in Sindh and observed that newsmen were being physically abused, illegally detained and prevented from performing their professional duties, both by law enforcing agencies and lawless elements on the behest of influential people.
Earlier, in June 25, in Kandiaro, Zahid Ali Qaimkhani, correspondent of Sindhi language “Barsat” was kept in illegal confinement for ten hours by the police and forced to withdraw his news item regarding the arrest of three traffic policemen for carrying unauthorised sophisticated weapons.
On March 13, Nawabshah city police raided the house of Baksh Ali Jamali, correspondent of the Sindhi daily “Kawish”. They smashed the furniture and misbehaved with the residents. When local journalists called on the SSP of Nawabshah, he expressed ignorance about the raid and apologised for the “mistake”. However, at around midnight on May 8, police once again entered Mr. Jamali’s house, blindfolded him and forcibly took him to the police station where he was arrested on charges of “drunkenness”. He was released on bail ten days later after local journalists went on token hunger strike.
Although newsmen in Sindh been the worst affected, attacks against journalists have increased all over the country. In Lahore, columnist Zaffaryab Ahmed, was arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on June 5, on the charge of anti-state activities. Authorities claim that Mr. Ahmed’s involvement in the campaign against employment of child labour in the carpet industry had resulted in loss of carpet exports and was thus against national interest. Mr. Ahmed has been released on medical bail
On May 29, Aslam Gauhar, a staff member of Urdu daily “Khabrain” in the city of Multan was stabbed and critically injured by five persons armed with firearms and daggers. In a statement, Mr. Gauhar said he had been receiving threatening telephone calls because he had released a news report against a federal minister. According to press reports the attackers were linked to the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), the city police chief, of Multan.
VIOLENT ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS AND NEWS ORGANISATIONS
The level of violence against journalists and news organisations has reached frightening proportions. The offices of “The News” were attacked by unidentified gunmen with automatic weapons on October 22. The attack shattered window panes and left bullet marks on the walls of the building. According to eyewitnesses four masked gunmen carrying AK 47 rifles and TT pistols, fired several rounds at the building. Police and paramilitary rangers reached the offices of “The News” twenty minutes after the incident.
Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto condemned the attack and termed it as “a crude attempt to browbeat the freedom of the journalist community.” The Senior Vice President of Newspapers Editors Council of Pakistan (NECP), Mahmudul Aziz said it was shocking that hoodlums had attacked the offices of the newspaper while security forces remained deployed all over the road and the police station was hardly 500 yards away from the place of the incident. Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) President and General Secretary Mazhar Abbas and Sarfaraz Ahmed said lawless elements frequently choose newspaper offices as easy prey because the government had miserably failed in providing security for newspaper offices.
The office of British Broadcasting (BBC) in Islamabad, Pakistan was attacked on 24 August by six armed with batons, steel pipes and iron rods. The attackers smashed furniture, televisions, computers, and cameras, and damaged the car in the parking lot. The office is also the residence of BBC correspondent Daniel Lak who, with fellow correspondent Zafar Abbas, escaped serious harm after being threatened by the militants.
The attackers chanted slogans in support of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian religious organisation, its jailed leader Maulana Azam Tariq, and against the BBC. Two weeks before the attack, a leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba had threatened the BBC with demonstrations if a documentary about the organisation was televised. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ordered an inquiry into the incident and condemned it as “an act of extreme cowardice by a handful of misguided elements.”
On 30 June, Elfinn Haug, a cameraman for the Norwegian television station NRK-TV, was attacked and beaten by five unidentified persons while filming a workshop in Sialkot that employed children as workers. The assailants grabbed Haug’s camera, which police later recovered without its film.
On 25 June, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the state-run television station in Karachi. It damaged an adjacent building but there were no injuries.
On June 21, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the building of Nawa-i-Waqt group of publications, housing the offices of the Urdu daily of that name and English daily “The Nation”. The grenade damaged the store room but there were no injuries.
This was that second attack on the offices of this group of publications. The first was an arson attack on February 25, when a group of about 150 armed persons stormed into the building ransacked the newspapers’ offices and set it on fire. The intruders also beat the staff members. The mob set ablaze 20 motorcycles and seven vehicles parked outside. Staff members telephoned the police but it took one and a half hour to arrive at the scene.
Journalists in smaller cities also continue to be harassed by political groups. On October 13, Amir Abbas Minhas, editor of “Dhan Kahoon”, Chakwal, was abducted by a former member of the district council and four other persons. They locked him in a house and beat him severely with clubs for publishing an article against the former councillor.
On March 10, armed activists of a student organisation ransacked and burnt the offices of Ahmed Zia, the Nawabshah correspondent of “Nawa-i-Waqt”. Press reports said the police registered the case and initially arrested some workers of the organisation, Anjuman-i-Tuliba-i-Islam but let the attackers go after receiving bribes.
OTHER PRESSURES ON THE PRESS
On June 29, in an unprecedented attack on press freedom, the Sindh government banned six mass-circulating Urdu daily newspapers of Karachi for 60 days. Five of the banned newspapers namely “Qaumi Akhbar”, “Evening Special”, “Aghaz”, “Parcham”, and “Awam” are eveningers, and one paper “Public” also publishes a morning edition, which was banned as well.
This action effectively eliminated the vernacular evening press of Karachi. According to press reports, this action by the Sindh provincial government was in the knowledge of both President Farooq Leghari and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Later the government cancelled the publishing licences of 122 newspapers to ensure that the banned publications do not reappear under new names. The government was however forced to back down and withdraw the ban in the face of a nation-wide strike by all newspapers.
Earlier on June 2, the Sindh government had issued a show-cause notice to daily “Public” but it was withdrawn because of pressure from national and international media organisations.
Another recent disturbing trend has been the use of courts to restrict press coverage. On October 22, the Lahore High Court prohibited the publication of any report on the proceedings of the petition by the arrested army officers. The proceedings are being held in open court but the restrictions have been imposed in view of the “sensitive nature” of the case. The Punjab Union of Journalist (PUJ) president, Saqlain Imam has said that the ban on reporting is against the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press which the courts are constitutionally obliged to uphold.
Never in the history of the country have so many defamation cases been filed by state figures including the President and the Prime Minister. In one case, the President has filed defamation case against journalists and editors for reporting the press conference of the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which he accused the President of financial irregularities.
In July, Ardeshir Cowasjee, columnist for the daily “Dawn”, publisher and printer Ghulam A. Mirza, and editor Ahmad Ali Khan were issued a legal notice for publishing “false allegations” against Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A similar notice was also served on “Dawn” columnist Ayaz Amir for using “defamatory language” against Mr. Zardari.
In May, the government initiated a defamation suit against Kamran Khan reporter of “The News” as well as the editor and publisher of the newspaper for publishing a column that Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had requested the extradition of Altaf Hussain , the leader of MQM, from his self-imposed exile in London.
There are signs that higher judiciary is itself becoming intolerant of a free press. On March 15, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan formed a committee to “consider the expediency and the propriety of taking action” against publication of statements and articles criticising the appointments of judges, judicial verdicts and conduct of judges of the superior courts.
The appointment of judges of the superior courts and their verdicts have become major issues in Pakistan’s political agenda. Opposition parties have criticised the appointment of the ruling party loyalists as judges and have bitterly criticised a number of court decisions as being partisan. The press has been reporting the opposition’s criticism and has also been commenting editorially on controversial judicial appointments and decisions. The decision to initiate probes into criticism of the superior courts seems to be an attempt to stifle debate on an important issue of legitimate public interest.
A week later, on 22 March, contempt proceedings were started against columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee of daily “Dawn” and against the editor, printer and publisher of the paper. Mr. Cowasjee had criticised the appointment of “totally unsuitable” people to serve as judges of superior courts and had also criticised a judgement of the Supreme Court. The contempt proceeding was initiated by Senator Masroor Ahsan of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
All major political groups have established elaborate disinformation agencies and institutions to discredit opposing parties and to promote their causes. However, with the escalation of political tensions, the government has become the most active and flagrant practitioner of disinformation.
State owned television has recently started telecasting confessional statements by the leaders of jailed leaders of the MQM in which they implicate their party in acts of terrorism. These programmes have been condemned as being reminiscent of tactics used by dictatorial regimes.
The government has increased the use of the state-owned news agency, Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) to malign opposition parties. For example, the Pakistan Association of Press Photographers (PAPP) condemned APP for distorting its press release issued on June 26, and termed it as glaring example of professional dishonesty. In its press release the PAPP had condemned the snatching of the equipment of its members by unidentified persons, whereas the story released by APP stated that the PPAP had blamed the MQM.
In August APP faced a serious crisis because of large scale termination, premature retirement and punitive transfer of journalists and trade union office bearers by the newly appointed Director-General, Azhar Sohail. In particular, officers of the APP employees’ union who had previously exposed alleged financial and other irregularities in the running of the news agency were the main target. The journalists were reinstated by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on October 14, after sustained protests from both the journalist community and political circles.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the attacks on the press in Pakistan reflect the emergence of a climate in which news organisations and journalists have become regular targets of violence, censorship, and other acts of intimidation. CPJ adds that the Pakistani government’s actions play an central role in fostering this climate since measures such as the banning of newspapers and the detention of journalists encourage non-governmental actors tostrike against the press as well.
Perhaps the only positive aspect is that, in most cases, protests from national and international organisations have proved to be effective. As there seems to be no move towards political reconciliation one can expect sustained pressure on the press in the months ahead. Press freedom organisations will, therefore, have to remain vigilant against threat to press freedom in Pakistan.