State, Fundamentalists Top Press Freedom Violators – Study
BANGKOK, Feb 20 (IPS Asia-Pacific/Asia Media Forum) – Violent incidents against the media have increased in the three-year period 2005 to 2007, and all fingers are pointing to three groups: the state, religious fundamentalists, and unknown blocs.
In a study conducted by South Asian media watchdog The Hoot.org for the Nepal-based Panos South Asia on media oppression in Pakistan, the government ranked first in violating press freedom. The police was “the single biggest category of oppressors”, especially of the news media, according to the study, released in mid-February.
The study analysed a total of 183 incidents that targeted the news media, and 78 attacks on music and film. There were at least 48 cases of media violence that occurred in 2005. The figure dipped a bit in 2006 with 43, but shot up in 2007 with 92 cases. In all, the state were the top culprits.
Results of this study were based on daily documentation by the Pakistan Press Foundation of cases relating to attacks on the media from January 2005 to December 2007.
Copies of this media study, said Ali, have been circulated among members of the Pakistani media on Feb. 16, 2008, two days before the elections in Pakistan, but not to government and religious groups.
“The study is an evidence of the commonly held knowledge that oppression by the state, specifically the police, is the most common form of oppression in the news media,” said Panos South Asia Pakistan country representative Sahar Ali, who noted that the rallying cry of major parties that ran in the elections was the issue of media oppression.
“If the statements of the two major political parties are to be believed, then we are optimistic that media oppression will not be an issue in the future. However, history tells us that democratically elected governments have been pretty disdainful of the media especially when they have come under criticism,” he said in an e-mail interview.
During this time, fundamentalist groups turned their wrath on cultural products such as video and audio CDs, and films. Such cases were rampant in the restive North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.
These attacks can be traced to the growing influence of the Taliban in areas near or bordering Afghanistan, according to the study.
It also cited instances where unidentified armed men and gunmen, as well as political groups, threatened or killed journalists in different parts of the country.
While cases have been filed in court against these atrocities, Ali said that most of these are likely to remain pending. “But as of Nov. 3, 2007, President (Pervez) Musharraf’s imposition of the state of emergency has compromised the independence and impartiality of the judiciary itself,” he added.
The Nov. 3 clampdown was a result of the government’s long-standing conflict with the judiciary, which was brought on by Musharraf’s suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on Mar. 9, 2007 due to the latter’s investigation of alleged corrupt dealings of the government.
Apart from arrests, manhandling, baton charging and injury, killings, kidnappings, and thrashing also increased in the last three years.
Police brutality was seen in cases such as the manhandling of a photojournalist by a policeman in Peshawar after the latter’s picture was taken while accepting a bribe in 2006, or of 200 journalists being baton-charged and held at police stations in Lahore and Islamabad in 2005 for demonstrating on Press Freedom Day.
According to The Hoot study, press censorship came in the form of bans and blocks, ‘press advice’ from the government, suspension of advertising, barred information, to name a few. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, the government’s regulating body for broadcast media, is also notorious for blocking transmissions and issuing closure threats on channels critical of the government. Most of PEMRA’s actions, it continued, were centred on Islamabad and Karachi.
Among PEMRA’s recent actions were its seizure of a Karachi-based FM radio station following the declaration of the Nov. 3 emergency and its warnings to private TV channels to refrain from airing anything that allegedly “contains baseless propaganda against Pakistan and incite people to violence”.
International media watchdogs such as the Reporters Sans Frontieres have also decried the government’s pressure on media institutions to exercise self-censorship under threat of suspension or bans.
In Pakistan’s conflict areas, meanwhile, fundamentalist groups have significantly tightened the noose on different types of entertainment media, including music, films, and TV programmes.
Raids on and closure of video and music shops, destruction of CDs and CD players, burning of TV sets and audio sets, bans on music in buses and taxis, and attacks on cable operators are just some of the restrictions on media in the NWFP and FATA. These attacks were done by banned religious organisations and extremists to allegedly stop the proliferation of “obscenity and vulgarity”.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late party head Benazir Bhutto, was quoted as saying in a press conference soon after the Feb. 18 elections that his government will grant the media “full freedom” and will specifically remove the PEMRA ordinance, Registration of Printing and Publication Ordinance 2007, which bars the media from printing or broadcasting anything that is critical of the government.
Pakistan Muslim League head Nawaz Sharif, likewise, included media freedom as a key objective of his party in a separate press conference. Both parties won a combined 154 seats in the 272-member National Assembly in the elections, edging out Musharraf’s PML-Q party and its coalition partners from the majority.
Said Ali: “How faithful these parties will remain to this cause remains to be seen,” he added.
Source: Asia Media Forum