South Asia dangerous region for journalists
LAHORE – South Asia continues to be one of the most dangerous regions in the world for journalists where they are threatened by attacks from gangsters, religious fundamentalists and terrorists and intimidated and harassed by police and security agents.
This is the overview of the second annual press freedom report of the International Federation of Journalists for South Asia for the year 2003-04 issued recently.
The report surveys the conditions in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and records the cases of violence against journalists and press freedom with special reference to the journalists who have paid too high a price for their work.
The report says that in all countries, democratic organizations and unions of journalists face pressure from employers and governments, which demonstrates a lack of respect for the independent role of media.
On the bright side of it, journalists continue to push the boundaries of freedom, navigating through the conflicts that have affected all nations and keeping their communities informed with news and thoughtful analysis.
IFJ’s director Jacqueline Park has said in foreword of the report: “Journalists should never have to pay the ultimate price for their stories and asking tough questions.
Governments, insurgents, terrorists, corrupt officials, criminals, gangsters and fundamentalists of all religions continue to take their frustrations over a free press out on journalists.
Ruthless criminality and political indifference often mean that little can be done to stop determined killers. But governments must continue to be challenged. They must respect democratic rights, investigate and follow up every attack and be held accountable when there is official complacency, negligence or, as in some cases, official complicity and can promote self-censorship.”
About Pakistan the report said: “There has been a major deterioration in the state of the print media in general and the working conditions for journalists in particular this past year.
Murders, kidnappings, arrests, imprisonments, tortures, attacks, imposed news blackouts — Pakistani journalists have seen it all. In a roller-coaster year in which their freedom has shrunk, they have been charged with some of the most serious crimes for which anyone in Pakistan can be tried, including blasphemy, which carries the death penalty, and sedition, which is punished with imprisonment.
For the Pakistan print media, the culprits have been varied – sectarian parties, robbers and elected public representatives. But the authorities have emerged as the main wrongdoers, representing a deterioration of the environment in which journalists cannot perform their profession in safety and without fear or favour.”
The report said: “Between May 3, 2003, and May 3, 2004, – World Press Freedom Day – two journalists were murdered in Pakistan. The first was Amir Bux Brohi, 30, a correspondent for the Sindhi daily Kawish and Kawish Television news channel.
Known for his reports on rights violations by police and the influentials in Sindh, he was shot dead on Oct 3 last at Shikarpur by three gunmen. Brohi was stopped as he returned from the local police headquarters and shot at close range.
The second was Sajid Tanoli, 34, a reporter of daily Shumaal who was killed on Jan 29, 2004, allegedly by Mansehra (NWFP) Nazim Khalid Javed. Tanoli was shot
five times in broad daylight on one of the town’s streets after he wrote an article about an illegal liquor business run by the Nazim. In neither case have the culprits been arrested, tried or punished.”
Murder was not the only weapon used to silence conscientious journalists. Sami Yousafzai, a stringer for the magazine Newsweek, was arrested on April 21, 2004, at Bannu in the NWFP near the tribal areas. He was traveling by a car with an American freelance journalist, Eliza Griswold, when they were stopped at a military check post. Both of them and car driver Salim were arrested and taken away separately for questioning, according to the local reports.
Security officers in Peshawar held Griswold for questioning for several hours and later released her. Yousafzai and Salim have not been heard from since their arrest.
On March 4, 2004, Shahbaz Pathan, a correspondent for the daily Halchal in Sukkur, Sindh, was kidnapped by armed men. Shahbaz and a friend were taken away to nearby Sahah Belo forests infested with bandits.
Shahbaz and his brother Asad, the general secretary of the Sukkur Press Club, had produced a documentary on the activities of the bandits.
On Aug 26, 2003, the police arrested six journalists under the terrorism laws during a visit by President Musharraf to Hyderabad. They were charged with disturbing peace and committing violent acts. They were released a few days later after journalists walked out from the Sindh Assembly session in protest against the arrests.
On Nov 22, 2003, some unidentified men set fire to the car of Amir Mir, the senior assistant editor of monthly The Herald. There were the cases of intimidation of journalists by religious groups.
On Sept 18, 2003, two journalists from tribal areas bordering Afghanistan were detained and roughed up by members of the Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ulema, which had been outlawed by the government.
Nasrullah Afridi of daily Mashriq and Aurangzaib Afridi of the daily Subah had been reporting on the group’s activities. They were freed after pressure from influential persons.
On Feb 29, 2004, hundreds of protesters from a religious group demonstrated against a private TV channel, Geo, for airing allegedly a controversial episode of a popular religious programme.
They attacked the Karachi Press Club, seriously injured a guard and damaged the property. Several journalists took cover in a room on the first floor. The protesters then tried to reach the premises of nearby Jang group, the parent company of the Geo, but were stopped by police.
On Feb 24, 2004, in Quetta a bomb exploded outside the offices of daily Jang blowing out windows in neighbouring buildings. No one was injured in the blast. An unknown group calling itself Liberation Army claimed responsibility, but gave no reason for its attack.
The report said there were numerous cases of arm-twisting and state interference during the year under review and various methods were employed to pressure the media persons to toe the line.
On March 16, 18, 19, 20 and 21 several journalists representing local and foreign media, en route to Wana in South Waziristan, were threatened and manhandled and their equipment snatched.
On April 8, Sami Piracha of daily Dawn in Peshawar was kidnapped and tortured by a local politician. On Feb 25, the government stopped giving official advertisements to the newspapers belonging to the Nawa-i-Waqt Group of Publications, which according to their editor was due to opposition to government policies.
On July 10, 2003, the Balochistan government imposed curbs on the media to deal with ethnic and sectarian tension caused by a bomb blast that killed dozens of people at a mosque. Later in July, the government banned distribution of Newsweek saying it contained material against Islam and the Holy Quran.
There were also reports of crackdown with blasphemy and sedition laws. On July 8, 2003, a Peshawar court convicted Munawwar Mohsin of The Frontier Post in a blasphemy case and sentenced him to life imprisonment with a fine of Rs50,000 for publication of a blasphemous letter in the paper on Jan 29, 2001, which had triggered violent protests.
On Aug 15, 2003, the police arrested Rasheed Azeem of daily Intekhab and joint editor of quarterly Roshnai for allegedly committing sedition as according to
police he was found distributing in Khuzdar city a poster depicting the army beating up a Baloch native.
The most high profile case was that of Khawar Mehdi Rizvi who was charged with sedition for abetting foreign journalists in preparing a fake film showing Pakistan in a bad light.
He was arrested along with two French journalists, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, of the weekly news magazine Express. Rizvi was working as a fixer for them. The authorities seized all journalists’ filmed material.
The French journalists were accused of taking a report about Taliban activities along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. They were freed on Jan 12 after pleading guilty of visa violations and paying Rs200,000 in fine.
The government charged Khawar Rizvi with sedition in an anti-terrorism court at Quetta. He remained in jail for 100 days, but was not taken to a magistrate or allowed access to his family or a lawyer.
After a worldwide campaign by Pakistani and foreign journalists, in which about 3,000 journalists and media workers signed a worldwide petition for his release, Rizvi was granted bail on a surety bond of Rs200,000 and he was released on Jan 29.
The report also highlighted the working conditions in newspapers. It said in most of the newspapers in Pakistan, the working conditions had deteriorated with about 75 per cent of journalists working on contract or without appointment letters, making it extremely difficult to protect press freedom.
According to a survey of a dozen newspapers conducted by KUJ, 152 out of 602 journalists had permanent jobs. Their salaries were low and in most cases they had no medical facilities, gratuity or provident fund.
In at least 80 per cent of the newspapers and news agencies, there was no concept of labour laws, Newspaper Employees (Conditions of service) Act or wage awards. While the government had not imposed censorship or ban on newspapers, a newspaper group had imposed a ban on the news of PFUJ and its affiliated unions and APNEC.
The KUJ had also noted an increase in interference by intelligence agencies by planting their men in the newspapers, and they also hired journalists working on low salaries and without any other facilities, the report said.
About the electronic media, the IFJ report said there had been a considerable improvement in Pakistan over the past year. About 60 private FM radio licenses had
been issued by early 2004, a dozen private Pakistani TV channels given a permission to go in air and hundreds of foreign channels promised in Direct-to-Home bouquets by both the state and private sectors.
This massively increased the number of alternative sources of information for Pakistanis who, until recently, had only the propagandist state-owned television and radio to rely on.
INDIA: Referring to the press situation in India, the IFJ report said four journalists were killed between April 2003 and April 2004. The report said the Indian government had been harassing and arresting journalists under the Official Secrets Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
In a blow to press freedom on Dec 16, 2003, the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of POTA and declared that neither journalists nor lawyers had a right to withhold information regarding a crime under the guise of professional ethics.
BANGLADESH: The report said Bangladesh continued to stand out as one the most dangerous countries in Asia for journalists, exacerbated by the criminalization of policies of the continuing culture of impunity for those committing and threatening violence against media.
The Bangladesh government, the report said, had been using the Speedy Trial Act and the Special Powers Act to harass journalists.
SRI LANKA: The journalists continued to face threats and intimidation. During the LTTE split, Tamil language mass media as well as journalists were sandwiched between the two sides.
Thousands of copies of Tamil newspapers were burned. Journalists’ movements were restricted, and they were pressured not to report anything harmful to LTTE factions in their geographical areas.
State control over the media increased in November, 2003, when Lake House, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Independent Television Network and the Lak Handa Radio came under the direct control of President Chanrike Kumaratunga.
In the recent elections campaign, observers and monitoring groups complained that the state-owned media was biased towards the campaign of UPFA, the ruling party.
AFGHANISTAN: The report said in Afghanistan four journalists and media workers facing death sentences on trumped-up blasphemy charges were forced to flee the country as remaining journalists committed to democratic media and professional solidarity had struggled to establish an independent union.
Two of them were tried in absentia and sentenced to death by the Afghanistan Supreme Court’s fatwa department of religious scholars. In March this year, the Afghan government passed the Law on Mass Media.
While the law has some positive features, there are some serious problems, including registration and licensing of mass media and printing houses by the Information Ministry, content restrictions and lack of independence for the broadcast regulator.