Ever since coming to power, Pakistan´s Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf has gone out of his way to constantly reassure Pakistanis and the world that civil liberties will be respected under his rule. Most would agree that, albeit a few lapses, such as the detention without charge of various government functionaries loyal to ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf has on the whole honoured his word.
Journalists, however, remain cautious, having been avuncularly warned by the CE that the press should “play a positive and constructive role”. A week after the 12 October 1999 coup, local newspapers reported that 20 journalists had been added to a list of citizens prohibited from travelling outside Pakistan. And on 21 October, a truckload of soldiers visited the Lahore offices of a leftist political weekly, questioned them about their reasons for publishing an issue headlined “No to Martial Law”, and asked for information about the weekly´s publisher and printer.
These relatively minor incidents have been noted in a special report called “Pakistan —The Press for Change”, released on 14 February by the New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Notes the report: “On 26 January, Musharraf ordered all high court judges to swear an oath never to challenge decisions made by his administration. Many journalists feared that the general´s next demand might be the unquestioning loyalty of the press… While there have been no serious attacks thus far, journalists know that if they had few protections under Sharif, they have none under Musharraf… At year´s end, most journalists, like most citizens, were going along with Musharraf, and the balance of media coverage was overwhelmingly supportive of the army takeover.
The report adds, “But some journalists challenged the legitmacy of the coup and questioned the administration´s policies, without apparent repercussions.” That is not strictly true. There have been cases where a few journalists writing independently on ´sensitive´ issues, have felt the pressure from agents of various intelligence agencies in the form of phones being tapped, being followed around, and so on. But since complaints to the military establishment have so far resulted in the press sure being immediately lifted, those affected have chosen not to go public on the matter.
There is more interesting read in the report: “The struggle of the press in Pakistan is a parable of the dangers that journalists face when the press is strong while other democratic institutions are weak… In a more fully developed democracy, journalists who expose government corruption can count on other institutions to step in and take up the cause. An independent attorney general could open an investigation; a congressional committee could hold hearings; political parties could use the allegations to force a leader from power.” The implication is that in Pakistan such support is just not available.
The report, which deals mostly with the situation before Musharraf came to power, finds the strength of the Pakistani press “particularly remarkable in a country that has spent more than half its life under military dictatorships”, including General Zia-ul Haq´s (1977-1988), which “brutally” suppressed media, imposing strict censorship controls and jailing journalists who tried to assert their independence.
The report seeks to explain why :here is a strong bent towards freedom in the Pakistani press: “Many of the country´s senior journalists great professional sacrifices during the Zia years, and guard their freedom all the more fiercely because of this history.”
Citing specific examples of suppression of the press, the report illustrates how Sharif, like his predecessors, used state machinery for this purpose, except that he did it “with particular zeal and efficiency”. After Sharif systematically cast aside virtually every democratic check on his power, the press became one of the few remaining bugbears.
Besides cases that caused an international uproar, like the crackdown on the country´s largest publishing house, the Jang Group of Newspapers, and the arrest of Najam Sethi, editor of the considably smaller The Friday Times weekly, the CPJ report documents tactics like the infiltration of newsrooms and press unions by agents from various intelligence agencies. “With so many spies doubling as reporters, and journalists moonlighting as government agents, now the biggest problem is lack of trust in each other,” one journalist told the CPJ. Other tactics included phone tapping and arrests, threats, harassment and interrogation by intelligence agents.
The report also notes the different state reactions while dealing with the English language and Urdu language publications —the latter with its broader reach being subjected to greater pressures. “Not surprisingly, Sharif initially focused his energies on controlling the Urdu-language press, while pointing to the relatively unfettered English language press as evidence that the Pakistani media was operating freely.”
A reporter whose stories appeared in both the English-language The Frontier Post and its sister paper, the Urdu-language Maidan, both published from Peshawar, told the CPJ how his stories were ignored by government agencies when they ran in The Frontier Post, but led to death threats “by certain agencies” against the chief editor of Maidan when it started publishing such stories.
The report covers the other main institutional forms of control, including the “press advice system”, refined in the late 1970s under General Zia, in which government officials tell newspaper publishers and editors what to publish. The system continued after Pakistan´s return to democracy in 1988. “[I]ts basic mechanisms seem to have been preserved and were perpetuated by federal and provincial information ministries a decade later. The Sharif government used the press advice system extensively.”
Despite all the pressures, the press in Pakistan on the whole continues to take seriously its role as a watchdog and monitor, given the absence of any other such institutions. In the process, every move, action and statement emanating from the military government is written about, commented and discussed threadbare, often very critically indeed. The bottom line, however, is, as the CPJ report notes, that journalists who work in such an environment are vulnerable to state repression, and will continue to remain vulnerable as long as other democratic institutions remain weak.
The CPJ report makes special mention of Afghan journalists in Pakistan in a piece titled, “No Man´s Land: Afghan Journalists in Pakistan Battle Alone”. It documents the attacks on several journalists critical of the Taliban, highlighting the dangers they face from both the Pakistani and Taliban sides. “Reporters living in towns along Pakistan´s northwestern border with Afghanistan have been threatened by Pakistani police and intelligence agents, as well as local agents of the Taliban. Pakistan´s Inter-Services Intelligence agency works closely with the Taliban, and because the intelligence agency enjoys broad powers under the military government of General Pervez Musharraf, Afghan journalists, as well as Pakistani journalists reporting critically on Afghanistan, are liable to come under even greater scrutiny.” An Afghan reporter told the CPJ that “working with newspapers, working with human rights organisations is playing with your life. The toleration for other opinions is not here.”
The report cites an article in the March 1999 edition of the English language monthly Herald, which reported that at least seven prominent Afghan politicians and intellectuals were killed in Peshawar between October 1 998 and March 1999. “While Afghan journalists were not among those killed, reporters are lying low, fearing that it may only be a matter of time before they have to bury one of their own,” said the article.
While violent attacks are not common, death threats are taken seriously. As a result, several journalists go into hiding temporarily, returning once the immediate danger has subsided. “[J]ournalists who have been threatened say they think about it every time they sit down to write something, which often leads to self-censorship,” says the report.