Despite President Pervez Musharraf's reassuring statements, Pakistan's media are not free to provide proper coverage of the legislative elections scheduled for 18 February because of a climate of censorship that is sustained by the permanent threat of fines, closures of news media and arrests of journalists, Reporters Without Borders said today.
The government has introduced a series of regulations that drastically restrict the broadcast media's ability to cover the election campaign. The ban on Geo News, the freest and most popular of Pakistan's TV broadcasters, proves that press freedom has not been guaranteed for the polls. At the same time, journalists are exposed to great dangers, with the security forces being responsible for most of the violence.
Reporters Without Borders has identified five key problems:
1. The censorship imposed by the print and broadcast media ordinances
The government decreed amendments to the ordinances on the print media (RPPO 2002) and the broadcast media (PEMRA 2002) on 3 November which, inter alia, make it possible to sentence a journalist to three years in prison for defaming or making fun of the president. At the same time, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a code of conduct that severely limits editorial freedom. The dozens of privately-owned radio and TV stations that were suspended at the start of November were forced to sign the code in order to be allowed to resume broadcasting.
Many journalists have told Reporters Without Borders that both military and civilian authorities often directly intervene with media executives and editors. The PEMRA sent a letter to radio and TV station owners on 11 December banning them from broadcasting news programmes and talk shows live and brandishing the threat of fines, prison sentences and bans for those stations that broadcast criticism of the government before the elections.
Reporters Without Borders calls for the repeal of the two ordinances and the code of conduct.
2. The unacceptable ban on Geo News
The TV news station Geo News and the sports channel Geo Super are no longer accessible in Pakistan. The government wants to force this broadcast group, the county's most popular one, to censor itself, to sideline some of its journalists and to eliminate some of its programmes. According to a Gallup poll carried out in September, Geo TV was watched by 35 per cent of Pakistan's viewers, ahead of the government station PTV and far heard of ARY. Using the network of correspondents of Jang and The News, two daily newspapers that belong to the same group, Geo TV was able to broadcast the results of the 2002 elections before the government media.
Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate lifting of the ban on Geo News.
3. The violence and intimidation by police and government supporters
At least 30 journalists were seriously injured in 2007, and at least 120 were arrested. Three police officers were punished in connection with the violence in Islamabad on 29 September but impunity prevails in most attacks on journalists. There have been more cases of journalists of journalists being injured by police since the lifting of the state of emergency, notably on 17 December in Islamabad.
Harassment also takes the form of fraudulent complaints and lawsuits. For example, 34 journalists in the southern province of Sindh, of whom 19 work for the daily Kawish or the television station KTN, are accused of taking part in the rioting the followed Benazir Bhutto's assassination. "They brought a complaint against me because of my critical articles," Javed Kalroo of the newspaper Tameer-e-Sindh told Reporters Without Borders. "I had nothing to do with the riots. "At least 10 of these 34 journalists have already been arrested and face the possibility of long jail terms under an anti-terrorism law.
Reporters Without Borders demands the end of violence and threats by the security forces against the media.
4. The lack of guarantees for journalists' safety
Six journalists were slain in suicide bombings or contract killings in 2007. One of them was a TV journalist who was killed in the first suicide bomb attack on Benazir Bhutto in Karachi. A cameraman was killed when the security forces stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad. This is the highest death toll for the Pakistani press in 10 years. Pakistani became the most dangerous Asian country for the media in 2007.
Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns bombings against civilians, including journalists, and calls for the murders of journalists to be investigated.
5. The lack of balanced news reporting on PTV, the government station
Pakistan's only national, terrestrial-broadcast TV station, PTV is directly controlled by the government and systematically plays up the statements and activities of President Musharraf and other government leaders. It has been forced to modernise its style since 2002 because of competition from privately-owned cable TV stations, but its coverage of the legislative elections has been heavily biased in favour of Musharraf's followers.
Reporters Without Borders wants PTV to give fair election campaign coverage to all the political parties.
"The legislative elections will not be free unless the government immediately rescinds the restrictions imposed on the media," Reporters Without Borders said. "The violence by the police and acts of intimidation by the intelligence services are also unacceptable. It is up to President Musharraf to take concrete measures to ensure that the 18 February elections are free and fair. As things stand, they are not."
Chief election commissioner Qazi Mohammad Farooq's promise to "all political parties that the elections will be fair, free and transparent" and information minister Nisar Memon's statement on 1 January that the government and media must "work as a team" to ensure a favourable climate for the elections are not sufficient.
A broadcast ban was imposed on at least 45 privately-owned satellite TV stations on 3 November by means of a simple verbal order to cable TV operators. Two privately-owned radio stations were also closed down. Most of these stations are now back on the air, but most of them were forced to drop programmes, sideline journalists or stop carrying foreign programming in order to get permission to resume broadcasting.
The political parties are split on this issue. Farhatullah Babar, the spokesman of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said PTV's coverage of the election was "partisan" but the privately-owned TV stations were doing a good job. He condemned the electoral commission's failure to ensure that the media are balanced and to prevent them from being pressured. "The government manipulates coverage by means of coercion and intimidation," he said to Reporters Without Borders.
Tariq Azeem, the spokesman of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), which supports Musharraf, paid tribute to PTV and said it had given air time to all the candidates. "The privately-owned media cover our activities but they give more time to the opposition parties because there are more of them," he said, adding, "the government does not manipulate coverage of the elections."
Zahid Kahn, the spokesman of the Awami National Party (whose strongholds are in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan), said PTV assigned virtually 80 per cent of its air time to the government and its supporters while the privately-owned media were afraid of being overly critical. "When we are invited to take part in talk shows, they ask us to be polite because they are under pressure from the authorities."
"The Pakistani media may appear very lively but it is clear the criticism has been toned down in recent weeks, especially in the editorial sections," an Islamabad-based diplomat said. "The TV station owners lost lots of money during the November ban," a TV journalist said on condition of anonymity. "They cannot afford to be banned again, so they censor themselves." Kashif Abbasi, the host of a TV talk show that was dropped by ARY, was quoted by the New York Times as saying: "News is not being covered objectively, but according to the wishes of the government."
Before her assassination, Benazir Bhutto was very clear in her condemnation of the government's attacks on the freedom of the press. During a protest in defence of press freedom in Islamabad on 10 November, Bhutto said: "I have come to demonstrate my solidarity. I reject these restrictions. We believe in free speech. Our war against the dictatorship continues, we are for freedom, we are for the media."