Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2001 by Owais Aslam Ali | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2001 by Owais Aslam Ali

The war in Afghanistan once again thrust Pakistan into the role of a frontline state, and the country became the focus of the international media. Many within and outside the country feared the decision by the Pakistan government to become part of the American-led coalition would prove to be divisive, and that fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, would have to be curtailed in order to maintain law and order in the country.

Fortunately, apprehensions related to free expression proved to be exaggerated and the diversity of views expressed in the Pakistani press was unmatched even by the press in established democracies.

Pakistan played an important role in securing the release of international journalists who had been detained by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, neither the government in Pakistan nor the news media were well prepared for covering a war that took the world by surprise with the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September.

Covering the War in Afghanistan

Mob attacks foreign media

Pakistan’s support for the US-led coalition was opposed by a committed minority that was mostly concentrated in the provinces of Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which borders Afghanistan. It was in these border areas that some journalists became victims of mob violence.

The most serious incident occurred on 9 December when Robert Fisk, foreign correspondent for the London-based daily Independent, was assaulted by a mob of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, near the border town of Chaman. He suffered injuries to his head, face and hand before being saved by a local religious leader.

Fisk had been traveling to Chaman when his car overheated and broke down close to the village of Kali Abdullah, home to thousands of refugees who have fled across the border from Afghanistan. He got out of the vehicle and was attempting to push the car to the side of the road when a group of 40 to 50 people gathered and started beating him. They hit his face and head with stones. His glasses were broken and he was covered in blood. Fisk fought back and managed to knock several of his attackers to the ground.

He was rescued by a religious leader who forced the mob back and guided him to the Red Cross, where he was given first aid.

Fisk wrote about the ordeal in the Independent, showing remarkable understanding towards his assailants. He said that even as he was being attacked he understood that he could not blame his assailants and added: “In fact, if I were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk, or any other Westerner I could find.” He said: “Many of these Afghans, so we were to learn, were outraged by what they had seen on television of the Mazar-i-Sharif massacres, of the prisoners killed with their hands tied behind their backs.”

In another incident on 9 October, two photographers, Patrick Aventurier of the Gamma agency and Vincent Laforêtthe of the New York Times, were beaten by policemen with sticks and the butts of their rifles in Quetta, Baluchistan. The policemen were offended that the photographers were taking pictures of a dead child who had been shot in the head during a demonstration against the bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

Fearing for the safety of international journalists, authorities in Quetta prohibited more than 200 reporters foreign journalists from leaving the hotel during violent demonstrations. During one such demonstration stones were thrown at the hotel.

Detention of foreign journalists

International journalists also faced detentions and interrogations because they were unaware that foreigners required special permission to visit many parts of the tribal areas (know as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA) bordering Afghanistan. A number of journalists who rushed to cover the plight of Afghan refugees in camps along the border were detained by the tribal authorities or security agencies.

On 18 September, Jon Ingemundsew, photographer for Swedish newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad, and Pakistani photojournalist Ghafar Baig were interrogated by officials of law enforcement agencies near Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The officials wanted to verify whether the journalists had taken pictures of the military base. On 25 September an Irish television crew and a CNN crew were briefly detained and interrogated.

On 5 October, authorities of Khyber Agency in NWFP arrested and interrogated five journalists, including two French journalists illegally entering Tirah Valley (Khyber Agency); an area, which they claimed was off-limits to foreign journalists.

The two French journalists, Olivier Ravanello, reporter, and J̩r̫me Marcantetti, cameraman both for Paris-based television news channel LCI and three local journalists РRifatullah Orakzai, reporter for the Peshawar-based daily Khyber Mail; Muhammad Iqbal Afridi, district correspondent of Urdu-language daily Al-Akhbar; and Syed Karim, correspondent for the Urdu-language daily Khabrain Рhad gone to the area to report on new refugee camps that had been established for Afghans fleeing their country. The French journalists were released without charge on 8 October. However, the local journalists remain jailed until 18 October.

On 10 October, Aziz Zemouri, reporter for French Le Figaro magazine, was detained in Peshawar by the Pakistani Immigration Department. The Taliban handed the journalist over to Pakistani authorities after arresting him in Afghanistan for entering the country illegally. He was released on 16 October after being interrogated by the immigration department and intelligence services.

After the arrest of several foreign and Pakistani journalists who tried to enter Afghanistan without necessary permission, Pakistani authorities said they would take measures to prevent any “illegal crossings” at the border. On 16 November, NWFP authorities prevented Pakistani and international journalists from leaving Peshawar for the Afghan border.

Discriminatory visa policy for journalists

Hostility between India and Pakistan also led to complaints by Indian journalists as well as journalists of Indian origin that they were not being issued visas to cover the war. They claimed that, while non-Indian journalists were promptly issued visas by the embassies, applications of Indian and Indian origin journalists had to be sent by embassies to the Ministry of Information in Islamabad for approval.

Pakistani officials claimed that a similar policy was followed by India in granting visas to Pakistani journalists, but officials of the Indian Embassy in America claimed the policy of prior approval applied only to journalists who were citizens of Pakistan.

British journalists expelled

On 10 November, journalist Christina Lamb and photographer Justin Sutcliffe British of London’s Sunday Telegraph were expelled from Pakistan for being involved in activities aimed at “defaming the country”. The British journalists were detained on 9 November in Quetta and taken to Islamabad, the country’s capital.

Authorities said that upon reaching the Islamabad Airport lounge, Lamb created a commotion as she tore off her trousers to protest against the expulsion. She was put in a wheelchair by security staff and taken to the plane for London. The Sunday Telegraph claimed Lamb was working on a story about covert operation by rogue elements in the Pakistani intelligence service to smuggle arms to the Taliban.

However, press reports quoting government officials said the deportation was the result of the British journalist’s irresponsible activities aimed at defaming the country. Lamb had stirred up controversy by unsuccessfully trying to book an airline ticket from Quetta to Islamabad in the name of Osama Bin Ladin. The matter was reported to the authorities, who considered the episode a serious matter. Lamb described what she did as a joke and said she meant no harm. She complained that some Pakistani newspapers misreported the matter to make it look like a conspiracy.

Legal actions against the media

Newspapers closed, journalists arrested

While the attention of the world has been focused on events associated with the war in Afghanistan, there are a number of important incidents relating to freedom of the press that also merit attention.

On 29 January, police in Peshawar raided the offices of the daily Frontier Post, arrested five employees, sealed the offices and closed down the newspaper and its sister publication, Urdu-language daily Maidan for publishing a blasphemous letter. The website of the newspaper was also blocked by authorities.

On 30 January, a mob set the newspaper’s printing press ablaze. The attackers set the newsprint rolls and the machinery inside on fire and the press was totally gutted.

The official action and the mob attack were in reaction to a blasphemous letter published in the paper that accused Prophet Muhammad of lewd behavior and victimising Jews. The letter, titled “Why Muslims Hate Jews”, by Ben Dzac, was received by e-mail as a letter to the editor without contain any return address.

The five employees were arrested under the Blasphemy Act, which stipulates the death sentence for those who pass derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad or the Holy Quran. Those arrested included News Editor Aftab Ahmed, Chief Reporter Imtiaz Hussain, Senior Sub Editor Qazi Sarwar, opinion page head Munawar Mohsin and layout designer Wajihul Hassan. Managing Editor Mehmood Afridi and Co-Editor Javed Nazir, who were also sought by police in the matter, went into hiding.

In a statement issued the same day, Afridi offered an unqualified apology for the publication of blasphemous material published in the paper. The statement said the paper was a victim of a conspiracy and added “the conspiracy, we aver, was not against The Frontier Post alone, but also against the people and the government of Pakistan, and the whole Ummah.” The statement said “persons apparently involved in the dastardly act” had been suspended and the paper had lodged a complaint with the police, nominating the suspected persons.

On 31 January police detained six people from the daily Maidan, including the paper’s chief editor, Kifayatullah, for several hours. The same day, militants assaulted press photographers in the streets of Peshawar who were covering demonstrations of by religious groups against the paper. Haider Shah of daily The News International and Shahzad of the Urdu-language daily Al-Akhbar were beaten with batons.

On 1 February, police raided the Peshawar offices of the Urdu-language newspaper Jasarat, which had just published extracts of the blasphemous letter. The authorities accused the newspaper of trying to fuel demonstrations against The Frontier Post.

Four of the arrested journalists, Imtiaz Hussain, Qazi Sarwar, Wajihul Hassan and Aftab Hassan were released on 15 February.

Newspaper owner receives death sentence in narcotics cases

On 27 June, special judge Syed Kazim Raza Shamsi of the Anti-Narcotics Court awarded the death sentence and a one million rupees fine in each of two narcotics cases against Rehmat Shah Afridi, owner of the English daily Frontier Post and the Urdu daily Maidan.

Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) personnel arrested Afridi on 2 April 1999 after allegedly recovering 21 kilograms of hashish from his car. Later, ANF also seized 651 kilograms of hashish from a truck, allegedly on information provided by the accused, and arrested the other two accused, Abdul Malik and Misal Khan. The court also awarded life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 250,000 each to Malik and Khan.

Afridi pleaded not guilty and claims he is the victim of an ANF plot. Afridi and the other accused appealed the decision in a higher court.

Curbs imposed on disseminating views of banned sectarian organisations

On 14 August, the Pakistani government issued an ordinance under which printing, publishing or disseminating any material, or projecting any person convicted of a terrorist act or any banned organisation would be an offence punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment. However, the ordinance clarifies that “factual news reports made in good faith shall not be construed to mean projection [of a person or organisation]”.

The ordinance introduced amendments to anti-terrorism laws, empowering the government to ban any organisation involved in terrorism. Two militant sectarian organisations, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Muhammad, were banned the same day under the ordinance.

The day the ordinance was issued, the provincial government of Punjab warned that legal action would be taken against publications, which carry statements from, or made on behalf of the two banned sectarian organisations. An official handout said that through the amended Terrorist Act, the government had banned the publication, printing or dissemination of press statements, press conferences or public utterances by or on behalf of the two banned organisations.

Daily Mohasib newspaper closed and three journalists arrested for blasphemy

On 29 May, the Abbotabad daily Mohasib published an article entitled “The Beard and Islam”, that ridiculed clerics who claimed that a man who does not wear a beard couldn’t be a good Muslim. The article also criticised the exploitation of religion for personal and political ends.

On 3 June, a local religious organisation filed a complaint against the author of the article, Jamil Yousaf, as well as the newspaper’s staff and management. In response, police raided and sealed the offices of the daily and arrested the newspaper’s managing editor, Muhammad Shahid Chaudhry, and sub-editor, Raja Muhammad Haroon, and filed a case against the writer. News Editor Shakil Ahmed Tahirkheli was arrested on 4 June, and the daily’s editor, Mohammed Zaman Khan on 8 June. The author and the other arrested journalists were charged under sections 295-A and 295-C of PakistanÂ’s Penal Code. A conviction under these sections carries the death penalty.

The newspaper contested the claim that the article was blasphemous and stated it had only contested the views of certain religious leaders. The Pakistani government and the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) supported the newspaper’s assertion.

The journalists were released on bail on 18 July. The four released from jail were brought to the Abbottabad Press Club by journalists and friends in the form of a procession.

Journalist harassed, threatened

Hayatullah Khan, correspondent for Urdu-language daily Ausaf in Mir Ali in the federally administered tribal area of North Waziristan Agency was threatened and harassed for most of the year by tribal officials.

Khan’s problems began in December 2000 when he reported on an attack on the office of Mohammad Mushtaq Jadoon, the Political Agent, or administrator of the territory. Khan was summoned by Jadoon, who directed him to submit his stories to the local administration before transmitting them to his paper.

In July tribal officials threatened Khan with arrest for his reporting of clashes between two tribal groups. Fearing that he would be arrested, Khan fled his hometown in late July. Later, tribal authorities issued an arrest warrant under the draconian colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Police also sealed the newspaper office in Mirali and a newspaper distribution agency owned by Khan.

Tensions between India and Pakistan lead to restrictions on communications

Tensions between India and Pakistan have led to restrictions on communications by both India and Pakistan.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the regulatory body for cable television operators, on December 29 issued the directions to cable TV operators to stop transmission of Indian channels. It said the decision was taken in view of the one-sided, poisonous Indian propaganda by that country’s channels aimed at tarnishing the image of Pakistan.

According to a PTA announcement the Indian TV channels were propagating malicious material against the security of Pakistan thus violating the conditions of the license issued by PTA to cable television operators. The announcement said that the licenses of the cable operators would be canceled if they were found violating the orders.

The All Pakistan Cable Operators Association (APCOA) on December 31 announced that cable operators had stopped showing Indian TV channels. Addressing a press conference at the Karachi Press Club,APCOA Chairman Hassan Mustafa said the organisation fully endorsed the PTA decision and added cable operators in Pakistan would not tolerate false propaganda against Pakistan by the Indian television channels. Hassan Mustafa said members of APCOA have decided to replace Indian channels with other international channels. He said the private sector in Pakistan should establish TV channels.

In 1999 during the military confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kargil in Kashmir, India had cited the same reasons for banning the transmission of Pakistan television programmes by Indian cable operators. However, according to the BBC, Indian authorities have said they the country had “no immediate plans to block Pakistan TV”.

Meanwhile, according to the BBC, the authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have suspended long-distance national and international call facilities from public phone offices. The BBC also quoted reports that Internet services in the Indian-administered Kashmir had been withdrawn, but officials said this was the result of a technical fault.

Newsweek article censored

An article on blasphemy published in the 3 September issue of Newsweek was censored by the Ministry of Information’s press service (PID), which stated, “The article’s subject matter is objectionable and may spark violence”. The PID added, “the decision has been taken in the public interest” and “the magazine itself has not been banned”.

The Customs department was instructed to seize copies of the magazine and Liberty Books Private Limited, Newsweek’s distributor in Pakistan, was directed to tear out the controversial article.

The article dealt with the death sentence against Younus Sheikh, who was accused of having committed blasphemy while having a discussion with students at the university where he taught.

Violence against the media

Reporter abducted

On 28 March, five unidentified people abducted Shakil Shaikh, chief reporter for the English-language daily The News, at gunpoint in broad daylight in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. His kidnappers beat him severely for three and a half hours before abandoning him in a deserted village.

Shakil sustained multiple injuries, including a head injury. Several parts of his body turned black and blue due to the severe beating with rifle butts and boots. His shoulders had imprints of boot heels on them.

The assailants who had followed Shakil’s car forcibly stopped him, put a cloth over his face and tied his hands with a rope. They threw him in their jeep and started beating him while they drove to a deserted area. Shakil later told newsmen in the hospital that his attackers repeatedly said: “You write too much. Now you will not write anymore.” They also threatened that his wife, children and parents would be kidnapped if he did not change his attitude.

Photographer beaten by police officers

On May 14, Hadi Sanghi, photographer for Sindhi language daily Kawish, was beaten by police officers in the city of Larkana in the southern province of Sindh for taking photographs of the prison staff beating a prisoner.

Sanghi was covering the release from prison of Qadir Magsi, head of nationalist political party Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party (STPP), and his 18 associates. Sanghi noticed the jail staff beating a prisoner and started taking photographs. This annoyed Deputy Superintendent Aijaz Hyder, who started chasing him in an attempt to get his camera. However, the crowd that had come to receive the freed politicians protected Sanghi from being caught.

The police then used tear gas and batons against the crowd. They managed to catch Sanghi and beat him severely. They also seized his camera and motorcycle. Prison authorities registered a case against Sanghi and 28 other persons for attacking the prison.

Newspaper office ransacked

On 8 December, a dozen armed men barged into the Hyderabad city bureau office of Karachi-based daily Ummat and beat up two staff members. They also ransacked the office, broke furniture, computers, a television, a fax machine and telephone sets. Bureau chief Abdul Hafeez Abid was not present in the office at the time of the attack.

Abid said he had received threats via telephone and informed police. He asked authorities to post a police guard at the office but his request was ignored. Abid and his son were injured in a shooting attack outside his office on 16 July 2000.


The war in Afghanistan demonstrated the commitment of the Pakistani press to present a diversity of viewpoints to the readers. The performance of the Pakistani press was especially laudable during a period that saw a weakening of commitment to freedom of expression by established democracies, particularly in the America.