Press freedom: promoting professionalism
November 3 was one of the darkest days in the history of Pakistan when former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf banned, through an ‘oral order’, all private news channels and some entertainment and sports channels as well against what he termed reaction to ‘irresponsible journalism’.
Some of his own media managers were unaware of the action as intelligence agencies directly handled the cable operators to put all the channels off air.
The media reacted strongly and after 80 days of struggle, during which cases including sedition cases were registered, journalists were jailed but in the end the government put the channels on air.
The media and the judiciary were targets of Musharraf’s ‘Emergency Plus’.
However, in the case of the media there were no written orders and the government used local intelligence and the police to put channels ‘off air’.
Later, when some of the channels decided to operate from Dubai through satellite, the government first used its influence on the UAE government to dislodge the channel’s operation from Dubai and later through a circular restrict shopkeepers from selling the dish as well.
Journalists and the then PFUJ leadership were threatened of dire consequences. I still remember the telephone call from an intelligence official on the night of Nov 3, 2007, asking me not to take journalists to the streets. “There is zero tolerance policy against you and the PFUJ leaders,” he said.
The PFUJ called for an emergency meeting of the Federal Executive Council on Nov 5. I, as Secretary-General of the PFUJ, was not sure how many would turn up under the prevailing circumstances.
However, a large number of FEC members and activists of Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) turned up and we decided to launch the movement from Nov 7, with a rally to the Prime Minister House.
It was a huge rally which set the pace for a long movement. Next day, the case was registered against 200 journalists for “attacking the PM House.”
International support from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other organisations were a source of inspiration.
During the next 80 days, sedition case was registered against the PFUJ. In Karachi, some 200 journalists courted arrest after police arrested some journalists during a rally.
Later the government introduced major amendment to Pemra, 2002 Ordinance barring the media from criticising the President of Pakistan. Unfortunately, most of the channels owners signed on the controversial “code of conduct,” despite resistance from the PFUJ.
In the end, Musharraf was defeated, channels were restored and the clear message was given to the future rulers that the freedom of the media is now irreversible. The present government in 2008 abolished the said amendment.
November 3, 2007 was the biggest movement for the freedom of the Press since the 1978 historic movement against the ban on newspapers, the 1966 Press and Publication Ordinance, and the 1970 Journalists’ strike against non-payment of interim relief.
It is now time for journalists to launch a movement against ‘unethical journalism’, which is threatening for all of us. Let’s be ethical and promote professionalism. No government can now dare impose ban, having learnt their lessons from actions like Nov 3, 2007.