Rulers, security men shackle Pakistan

Journalists face severe harassment and detention in Pakistan where freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution but attempts by the media to challenge the country’s feudal and authoritarian structure are quickly crushed.

“In rural parts, journalists are scared to publish facts because of the repercussions. Several correspondents have experienced severe thrashings by landlords,” said former president of Peshawar Press Club, Mohammed Riaz. Across Pakistan, wealthy landowners have exercised a semi-mediaeval control over the lives, beliefs and, crucially, the votes of the largely illiterate rural population to amass immense political power.

In Punjab province, Sarwar Mujahid, the correspondent of the Urdu-language daily Nawa-i-Waqt was detained for several months for writing about a dispute between tenant farmers and security forces in 2005. According to Riaz, political correspondent of the English language daily Dawn, journalists are not respected in Pakistan. Pakistani media owners have compromised on media independence for the sake of government advertisements, and as a result “investigative journalism is not encouraged,” Riaz observed. “We just report the news concerning bureaucracy, police and politicians, where the prime sources are those in power,” said Mohammed Zahir, correspondent of a local daily, Aaj.

Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) observed in its recently published annual report 2005 that “the struggle against Islamist terrorism has given the authorities a pretext for cracking down on independent news media. Journalists who are critical of President Pervez Musharraf’s policies and those working for the foreign press are the leading targets.” The army has imposed a news blackout, which started in 2004, on media operations in areas bordering Afghanistan.

On January 12, an Al-Jazeera TV crew from Doha was arrested at the Jandola checkpoint in South Waziristan and refused permission to interview people in the Tribal Areas about the military operations underway. Last March, Pakistani journalists, Mujeebur Rehman and Younis Wazir, were detained by the military. They had to spend a night in a detention centre and Rehman’s video camera was confiscated.

A month later, an Afghan guide, Sami Yousafzai, was detained for over five weeks for accompanying an American journalist, Eliza Griswold, into the area that has been declared off-limits for the press. There are 25 cases of journalists having

been arrested, or prevented from circulating freely, or having their equipment confiscated in the area. A photojournalist, Hayatullah, 35, working for The Nation daily kidnapped six months ago in South Waziristan is still missing.

A pro-independence magazine from the Kashmir called Kargil International has not been allowed to resume publication. Owned by Pakistanis, it was started in 1998, but banned in 2004. Last year, government advertising was withdrawn from a conservative media group, the Lahore-based Nawa-i-Waqt, in February, and from an Urdu-language daily published from Islamabad, Jinnah, in July, for not falling in line.

“As a result, the press has become less and less inclined to tackle subjects likely to cause irritation such as military corruption,” said Tariq Khan, a human rights activist . — IPS