PAKISTAN: Media Under Siege: IPS

November 25, 2007 at 5:51 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment

Faisal Aziz (Association of TV Journalists) and Shamimur Rehman (Karachi Union of Journalists) at a sit-in protest. (Beena Sarwar/IPS)

KARACHI – From being the liberal President under whom Pakistan’s independent electronic media was born and flourished, Pervez Musharraf is now seen as the military general who imposed emergency rule on Nov 3 and suspended the Constitution and the independent judiciary.

Musharraf also blocked all independent television channels on the cable network. There were police raids on media organisations, printing presses and bureau offices and detentions of journalists.

For many, Musharraf’s ham-handed dealing with the media over the past year, and particularly the last couple of weeks, evokes bitter memories of the late Gen. Ziaul Haq’s martial law with its strict media censorship and ‘press advice’.

Newspapers in protest published blank spaces where material had been censored. Dissenting journalists were arrested and some were even flogged.

Musharraf has been comparatively benign.But this is a very different era, where independent news and views and a continuous flow of information had become the norm. In Zia’s time, there were only a handful of independent newspapers, hardly a threat, given the abysmally low 30 per cent literacy rate. Musharraf has had to contend with the independent electronic media with a huge outreach.

Until now, his claim that he gave the media more freedom than ever before was true to an extent, say journalists, but it is a freedom they have fought for, and it has come with a price.

“An explosion in the number of independent TV channels boosted pluralism and the quality of news,” noted the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in its annual report of 2007.

Simultaneously, since Pakistan’s involvement as a frontline state against the ‘war on terror, “the security forces radicalised their methods of repression: a score of journalists were kidnapped and tortured by the military.” Almost two dozen have been killed in different incidents since.

On Nov 3, PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) officials invaded the independent FM radio station Mast 103.6’s Karachi office with a heavy police contingent.

They forced it to close transmission and confiscated its broadcast equipment, citing the station’s broadcast of its hourly news bulletins and current affairs programmes from BBC as the reason. In 2004 too, PEMRA had sealed the popular radio network’s Lahore and Karachi stations.

The outspoken Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (www.pfuj.info) which has a long history of struggle for media freedom, termed the present situation “one of the worst kind of repression against the media since 1978”. The union has called for an ongoing series of protests, meetings and demonstrations until the media restrictions were lifted and all the channels restored.

“In the Zia days, we would protest in groups of four and chant slogans against the martial law and media restrictions. We would court arrest peacefully, and the police would pick us up,” recalled Nasir Zaidi who works for the ‘The News’ in Islamabad. Section 144, the law the government routinely invokes to prohibit public gatherings of more than four persons, was then in force around the country — as it is once again.

In 1978, Zaidi, then a frail young reporter with the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), was arrested and flogged for protesting against the closure of the daily Musawat (a paper sympathetic to the Pakistan People’s Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the elected prime minister whom Gen. Zia had overthrown).

“We were isolated then. The biggest difference now is the number of people supporting the journalists. It’s a mass movement, there’s a lot of commitment and participation, particularly of the younger people,” he told IPS.

Over a hundred journalists offered themselves for mass arrest in Karachi on Nov 20 after the police attacked them with batons, refused to let them march to the Governor House to present a memorandum, and arrested their leaders.

Police have attacked and arrested journalists demonstrating all over the country over the last couple of days, from Gotki and Hyderabad in Sindh province, to Faisalabad in the Punjab, and Quetta in the western province of Balochistan.

Zaidi attributes the new energy largely to the TV channels. “They tend to employ younger people, most of whom are very progressive. They see these Black Laws (the new PEMRA ordinances) as a direct attack on press freedom.”

The Pakistan Association of Television Journalists has 621 members around the country, 307 in the business capital Karachi alone.

“Most are less than 35 or 40 years old,” estimated Faisal Aziz Khan, the 33-year old secretary general of the association, talking to IPS at the old sandstone Karachi Press Club building where he participated in a hunger-strike as part of PFUJ’s ongoing series of protests.

Geo News, Pakistan’s first and largest 24-hour news channel, for which the young reporter and television host has worked since its launch in 2002, is part of the country’s largest media company, the Jang Group which owns several newspapers and magazines. Its television network broadcasts from Media City, a free-zone in Dubai from where it beams to a satellite network.

After Nov. 3 when PEMRA got cable operators in Pakistan to block the independent channels, the independent channels continued to reach viewers via streaming through the Internet and satellite transmission throughout the shutdown despite huge revenue losses due to loss of local advertising.

By Nov 16, most had capitulated and were back on air, having agreed to conditions like the government’s new “code of conduct” drawn up in June by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association. Some agreed to drop certain popular talk show hosts or anchors. Geo and ARY refused.

“Everyone wants Geo back on air,” said Abdul Jabbar, who lives in Korangi, a semi-slum in Karachi. “We don’t know what’s going on.

PTV (the state-owned Pakistan Television) only gives one side of the story. Geo was reporting very openly, giving all sides. What is the government trying to hide?”

The Musharraf regime in a dramatic development got the Dubai government, on Nov. 17, to order these channels to stop broadcast from Media City. The ban has hit Geo the hardest. The network alleges that it is being targeted specifically in order to cripple it financially, with estimated daily financial losses at half a million to a million dollars.

“They asked us to get rid of three or four specific people, and also some people on the print side,” said Mir Ibrahim Rehman, the young CEO of Geo. His family owns Pakistan’s largest-selling newspaper, the daily Urdu-language Jang, besides the English daily ‘The News’ and several other publications.

Rehman estimates that the print side has suffered a 30-40 percent decline in revenues after the government pulled all its advertisements and pressurized private advertisers to do the same.

“This is financial murder,” he added. The Geo management has gone to court to get at least the non-news channels back on air. The case is pending before the Sindh High Court.

The blocking of these channels generated widespread outrage. Pakistani expatriates and advocates of free expression around the world have offered to get the news out, through cell phone messages, helping them to hook up with satellite dish networks from New Jersey, USA, to Bangkok, Thailand, putting up video feeds and streaming on various websites, ranging from Human Rights Watch to blogs like www.supportpakistan.org.

“We are going to continue demanding that the government take back the new ordinances and restore all the channels, radio and TV,” said Huma Ali, president of the PFUJ and editor of the daily Urdu language ‘Din’ newspaper.

Talking to IPS from Islamabad, he added, “This is not a fight of journalists alone, but of all of civil society, all those who want democracy.”

“Unless freedom of expression is ensured, there can be no democracy,” said Shamimur Rehman, a senior reporter for daily ‘Dawn’ and president of the Karachi Union of Journalists sitting at the Karachi Press Club hunger-strike camp on Nov 11 under the watchful eye of armed police and rangers who have virtually laid siege to the club since Nov 3. Rehman was among the first journalists to be arrested on Nov. 20.

“It is about the right to live in a civilized society. The real fight is against the extremists,” commented Owais Tohid, who heads a new English language channel launched by Geo. Tohid led the twenty one journalists from Geo English who courted arrest on Nov 20 in Karachi in solidarity with detained colleagues like Shamimur Rehman.

The crisis for the first time in almost two decades is bringing together the stakeholders. Media owners, broadcast as well as print, are setting aside their rivalries, and patching up differences with working journalists.

“The most positive thing I can see is the cooperation developing between the publishers, broadcasters and the working journalists,” said Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of the Nepali Himal Southasian, who was in Pakistan recently on behalf of the International Federation of Journalists. “This unity is important to keep media freedom alive.” (Beena Sarwar/IPS)

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