Jun 4, 2007

Pakying It In - Musharraf Tightens Media Grip

Three Pakistani journalists (Reuters) recently left a press meeting in Karachi to find a dark message on their cars: an unaddressed envelope containing a single bullet. A week earlier two of the three journalists, who work for foreign media outlets, were included in a list of a dozen reporters considered “enemies” by a shady group called the Mohajir Rabita Council, which has links to the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement allied with President Pervez Musharraf’s political coalition.

Although the regime of Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup, cannot be directly linked to planting bullets in reporters’ cars, rising civil unrest over the president’s March decision to dismiss Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has left Islamabad jittery about a free press.

With his rule imperiled by the protests, Musharraf finds the free media he originally fostered turning against him. Last week he warned journalists against politicizing the judicial crisis, the official Associated Press of Pakistan reports. A day later, the information minister accused Pakistani media of “irresponsible behavior” (Daily Times) for its coverage of the crisis. He said authorities would enforce laws requiring private channels to gain permission before broadcasting talk shows and news programs.

A new report by the watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists lists Pakistan among the top ten countries experiencing deteriorating press freedoms. After protests first broke out (Daily Times) in March, police ransacked and tear gassed the headquarters of Geo TV. A month later the Pakistani regularity authority (BBC) set up in 2002 to license private media threatened to suspend the license of popular broadcast channel Aaj for inciting violence (AHN) with its coverage of the judicial crisis by criticizing the military. On Sunday, the government largely banned transmissions of both channels because of their “anti-government” programming.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Pakistani newspaper publisher Hameed Haroon documented Islamabad’s squeeze on press freedoms, including of his English-language DAWN media outlet. “[W]e are becoming collateral damage stemming from Western support for
authoritarians like Mr. Musharraf,” wrote Haroon. His DAWN outlet experienced a sharp decline in government advertising as well as threats to its broadcasting license after reporting on Islamabad’s controversial cease-fire agreements with pro-Taliban groups operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Pakistani authorities so far appear unable to freeze criticism. Ayesha Siddiqa launched her new book (Times of London), Military Inc., examining the business side of the Pakistani military, despite officials pressuring Islamabad social clubs and hotels not to host the book launch. Attempts to stem freedom of the press have also failed to halt the widening protests, which turned violent and claimed over forty lives in Karachi in May after the chief justice was prevented from speaking there.

Pakistan’s judiciary has proven equally assertive during the crisis, with the Supreme Court announcing an investigation into authorities’ intimidation of journalists, notes intelligence analysis website Stratfor. Yet with media criticism taking aim not only at president-in-uniform Musharraf but also the powerful military establishment, a fierce official crackdown on Pakistan’s independent media may be in the wings.

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