Press and administration
The federal information minister has been quick to refute allegations levelled by an international human rights group about intimidation and harassment of journalists in Pakistan.
The minister has reiterated the government’s position that it would “safeguard and protect freedom of the press as it believes that a free and vibrant media is essential for the consolidation of democracy… and establishing a progressive, moderate and forward-looking society”.
The minister’s statement is reassuring, but the New York-based Human Rights Watch was also firm in the charges it made relating to at least two specific cases. One concerns a senior assistant editor of the Herald magazine who apparently attracted President Pervez Musharraf’s ire at a meeting with newspaper editors. The magazine was described as being anti-army. Two days after the president’s remarks, the Herald journalist’s car mysteriously caught fire. The information minister says the police have been asked to investigate the incident, which, according to Human Rights Watch, was followed by a warning to the Herald journalist that this was “just the beginning”.
We hope the investigation would be impartial and thorough, and its findings made public. The second incident mentioned by the Human Rights Watch involves a Khuzdar journalist and political activist who was arrested on a charge of “sedition” last year for publishing a photograph of army personnel beating up a crowd of Baloch youth.
The journalist is still in jail and is stated to have been tortured. In his refutation of the Human Rights Watch allegations, the information minister has not commented on this particular case.
No doubt since the end of the suffocating Zia era, the print and electronic media have succeeded in carving out space for themselves for uninhibited, at times provocative and personalized, reporting and comment. The Musharraf government largely left the press alone, and an instance of its openness was the debate that raged in newspaper columns over the Kargil adventure.
This policy has been followed by the administration led by Prime Minister Jamali, who has come under attack for various sins of omission and commission. The military itself, long considered a sacred cow, has been criticized, notably over the recent Okara farms issue. But old attitudes die hard, and there is a feeling that the army still considers its actions to be above question. If it had confined itself to its constitutional obligations, it would probably have had little to complain about, but since it has intruded into political life, and done so recently in a pervasive manner, it should be prepared for public accountability.
Apart from the two specific instances quoted by Human Rights Watch, organizations representing the newspaper industry have been regularly pointing out incidents of intimidation of the press by devious means, including the selective release of official advertising.
Police and intelligence officials often act on their own to bring probing journalists in line. Both the Freedom of Information Ordinance and the Press Council Ordinance have also been attacked for failing to take issues of freedom fully into account. It will be in the interest of openness if instances of petty vindictiveness and skullduggery are contained, and a holier-than-thou approach is abandoned