Journalists in Pakistan prone to self-censorship
THE MILITARY GOVERNMENT OF CHIEF EXECUTIVE GEN. PERVEZ MUSHARRAF sought to create an impression of benign rule last year. In part, this meant avoiding the bare-knuckle tactics that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif used to control the press. However, Musharraf’s patience with his critics seemed to be wearing thin toward the end of 2000, and some of the country’s leading journalists warned that a crackdown could be imminent.
While there was substantial debate on the administration’s policies in the boutique English-language press, political coverage in the mass circulation vernacular media tended to be far more tame. Self-censorship continued in all media, with journalists keenly aware that they work without constitutional protections or democratic safeguards.
The Pakistani Constitution has been suspended since October 1999, when Musharraf assumed power in a bloodless coup. The regime effectively undermined judicial independence on January 26, the day Musharraf ordered all senior judges to swear a loyalty oath affirming the declaration of a national emergency and promising never to challenge decisions made by the chief executive. Fifteen judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, refused to take this oath and were removed from office.
On February 26, Justice Rehmat Hussain Jafri imposed restrictions on media coverage of Nawaz Sharif’s trial. The former prime minister was charged with hijacking and attempted murder based on events immediately preceding the coup, when Sharif dismissed Musharraf as Chief of Army Staff while the general was out of the country, and then tried to prevent his commercial flight from landing in Karachi. Jafri made the decision to censor portions of the trial at the request of the prosecution, contending that statements made by the defendant were “likely to tarnish and affect the security, integrity, and solidarity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”
On April 6, after what was generally considered a show trial, the court sentenced Sharif to life imprisonment. (In a surprise move, the military government later pardoned Sharif, on December 10, exiling him and his family to Saudi Arabia.)
There was sporadic violence against journalists throughout the year. The most extreme case was the murder of Sufi Mohammad Khan, a reporter for the Urdu-language daily Ummat. Khan was killed on May 2 in a small town in the southern province of Sindh, in reprisal for stories he had written on drug trafficking and prostitution in the region. On July 16, another Ummat reporter, Abdul Hafeez Abid, was shot by unidentified gunmen in Hyderabad. Abid, a veteran journalist, survived despite bullet wounds to his stomach and neck.
On May 18, mobs angered by the murder of a prominent Sunni Muslim scholar attacked the offices of the daily Business Recorder in Karachi, the capital of Sindh Province and Pakistan’s commercial hub. Rioters ransacked the newspaper’s offices and set fire to the building. No one was killed in the attack, but the newspaper suffered extensive property damage and was temporarily unable to publish.
On November 6, the Karachi advertising office of the national Urdu-language daily Nawa-i-Waqt was hit by a bomb attack. Three Nawa-i-Waqt employees died from injuries sustained in the blast: Najamul Hasan Zaidi, the newspaper’s advertising manager; Ziaul Haq, assistant circulation manager; and Sajid Mehmood, a computer operator.
The closest the military regime came to an overt attack on the press was a four-hour inspection of the Karachi headquarters of the Dawn Group of Newspapers, which publishes some of Pakistan’s most influential and respected publications, including the English-language daily Dawn. On September 27, an army monitoring team arrived at the newspaper offices to investigate the company’s electrical usage. Soldiers demanded access to all parts of the building, including the offices of editors and reporters. The inspection followed a series of complaints by senior officials about Dawn’s political coverage. Journalists at the paper saw it as a punitive raid.
On September 12, Dawn had published an article entitled “Free Press: Is Musharraf Having Second Thoughts?” In the article, senior correspondent Shaheen Sehbai noted that the chief executive, on a recent visit to the United States, had exhibited a “growing impatience with the Pakistani press…[complaining that] it was irresponsible, corrupt, unpatriotic at times, and not pursuing healthy journalism.”
In mid-October, Musharraf suggested drafting legislation to punish those who make “anti-state comments.” The proposal followed a controversial speech in London by the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a dissident regional party, and appeared intended to target opposition leaders lobbying for support from overseas. But some journalists worried that such legislation would inevitably be used against the press. These fears seemed reasonable, since Pakistan already has strict laws against sedition that have been used to punish journalists writing about politically sensitive subjects.
Legal protections are tenuous at best in most of the country, but journalists are especially vulnerable in Pakistan’s border regions. Local journalists reporting from Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, said they were regularly harassed and threatened for reporting critically on the policies of that country’s ruling Taliban movement. These reporters feared publicizing their cases because the Pakistani military maintains close links with the Taliban, and because local police and security agents have also been hostile to the press.
Security concerns intensified after the June 1 shooting of Mohammad Enam Wak, author of a book entitled Afghanistan Federalism, in which he debated the formation of a state on the basis of ethnic identity. Unidentified gunmen shot Wak twice in his right arm and once in his abdomen. The attack occurred one month after the book’s publication.
Journalists were also vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and harassment in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where local authorities exercise unchecked power and normal Pakistani law does not apply. Similarly, the uncertain political status of the Northern Areas, adjacent to the disputed territory of Kashmir, has created problems for journalists. On October 17, the deputy commissioner of Skardu banned K-2, one of four major weekly newspapers covering the region, for reporting on a protest demonstration by activists who demanded more rights for the local population.
Judge Rehmat Hussain Jafri of Karachi’s Anti-Terrorism Court No. 1 restricted media coverage of the trial of former prime minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif.
The ruling came in response to a February 23 petition from the prosecution that urged the court to censor news reporting on the grounds that statements made by the defendants were “likely to tarnish and affect the security, integrity, and solidarity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”
Jafri ruled that any statements made by the defendants must be recorded by the court, which would “decide at the appropriate stage as to whether the same or part of it should not be released to the public or media.”
Military authorities also reportedly limited the press’ access to Sharif and six other defendants, who faced possible death sentences on charges including hijacking, attempted murder, and terrorism.
On February 28, CPJ sent a letter to Judge Jafri asking him to lift all restrictions on coverage of the Sharif trial.
Sufi Mohammad Khan, Ummat
Khan, an investigative reporter with the Karachi-based daily Ummat, was shot dead by Ayaz Khatak, an alleged drug trafficker, in the southern district of Badin, near the Indian border.
Khan, 38, had distinguished himself through his aggressive reporting on local drug trafficking and organized prostitution. In mid-April, he published an article alleging that Ayaz Khatak, a resident of the village of Shadi Large, Badin District, was involved in drug trafficking. Angered by that article and by the reporter’s continued investigations, Khatak visited Khan’s home, also in Shadi Large, on April 30 and threatened to kill him unless he backed off, according to the editor of Ummat.
Khan, who had received many threats in the past and had been physically assaulted twice in the past six months, ignored the warning and filed a story on Khatak’s alleged involvement with a local prostitute, which ran in the May 2 edition of Ummat.
Sometime before noon that day, Khan left his home by motorcycle and was stopped by Khatak, who was waiting for him just down the road, along with three companions. “I told you I would kill you,” Khatak reportedly said before opening fire. As Khan lay dying from multiple gunshot wounds, Khatak and his accomplices fled the scene in a white car.
About a half hour after the killing, Khatak surrendered to police in the nearby village of Khoski. Khatak walked into the police station and confessed to the killing, describing his actions in detail. His account was widely covered in the local press.
Police also suspected the involvement of the powerful Arbab family, which allegedly runs a prostitution ring out of Shadi Large that smuggles women from Punjab Province and sells them across the border in India. After Khan published his first reports on the Arbabs’ alleged involvement in human trafficking, family members tried unsuccessfully to bribe the journalist. When Khan continued to write critical stories about them, they filed a defamation case against him and his newspaper.
CPJ condemned Khan’s murder in a May 9 letter to Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf, urging him to ensure that a thorough and impartial investigation was carried out.
Abdul Hafeez Abid, Ummat
Abid, a veteran reporter for the Urdu-language daily newspaper Ummat, was shot by unidentified gunmen in Hyderabad. Assailants shot both Abid and his son as the two were leaving the Ummat office late at night. The journalist sustained bullet wounds to his neck and stomach and was initially listed in critical condition. His son escaped with less serious injuries. Both recovered, and Abid eventually returned to his journalistic work.
Colleagues said Abid was reluctant to speculate about the motives behind the assassination attempt. Having spent more than 20 years covering events in the politically volatile province of Sindh, he was vulnerable on many counts, according to CPJ sources.
Dawn Group of Newspapers
A Pakistan Army inspection of electricity meters at the Dawn Group of Newspapers in Karachi was seen by many local journalists as an attempt to harass the staff of the English-language daily Dawn, one of the country’s most influential and respected publications.
Although military involvement in electrical inspections became routine under the civilian administration of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Dawn argued that the timing of this inspection was suspicious, since the paper had received many indications in recent weeks that government officials were unhappy about its reporting.
Dawn journalists told CPJ that the government was particularly angered by a September 12 article entitled “Free Press: Is Musharraf Having Second Thoughts?” In the article, senior correspondent Shaheen Sehbai noted that Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf had exhibited a “growing impatience with the Pakistani press” while on a visit to the United States, complaining publicly that the press was “irresponsible, corrupt, unpatriotic at times, and not pursuing healthy journalism.”
On September 18, Sehbai received an e-mail warning from a colleague, saying, “The entire Information Ministry is up in arms against you over your Washington piece on the CE [Chief Executive].” The next day, Dawn received a letter from Minister of Information and Media Development Javed Jabbar, claiming that Sehbai’s article contained malicious and defamatory accusations against officials in his ministry. He threatened legal action if the newspaper did not print a clarification.
The September 27 inspection was conducted by six soldiers, a representative of the provincial electrical inspector and three engineers from the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC). The soldiers refused to surrender their weapons at the company’s security checkpoint and threatened to disconnect the power supply if they were not granted immediate access to all parts of Haroon House, the publishing group’s headquarters.
CPJ protested the incident in a September 28 letter to General Musharraf.
A bomb exploded at the Karachi advertising office of the national Urdu-language daily Nawa-i-Waqt, a newspaper known for its aggressive political coverage.
Three Nawa-i-Waqt employees were fatally wounded: Najamul Hasan Zaidi, the paper’s advertising manager; Zia-ul Haq, assistant circulation manager; and Sajid Mehmood, a computer operator. Also killed was an unidentified woman believed to have been carrying the bomb when it exploded. The bomb caused extensive damage to the building, knocking down walls and parts of the roof, and shattering doors and windows, according to news reports.
As is often the case in Pakistan, no one claimed responsibility for the attack. In 2000 alone, the country suffered some 33 bomb attacks prior to the Nawa-i-Waqt bombing, according to Agence France-Presse.
Five years before, on June 21, 1995, the same office building had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, during a period of intense ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi. At that time, the building housed the editorial operations of the Nawa-i-Waqt Newspaper Group, which also publishes the English-language daily The Nation. Following the attack, the newspaper group moved its main offices to a safer location several miles away.
CPJ sent a letter to Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf on November 6, urging him to ensure that the investigation into this attack was vigorously pursued.