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Government prohibits television coverage of presidential reference on judicial controversy

(PPF/IFEX) - The Pakistan government has prohibited independent television channels from televising programmes, including live talk shows and discussions, on the issue of the presidential reference against the suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. The presidential reference is a legal indictment against the Chief Justice, that was sent to a court comprised of senior justices of the Supreme Court and chief justices of high courts.

According to press reports, a letter issued to television channels the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) said that live talk shows and discussions on the presidential reference were sub judice and in "clear disregard of the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and PEMRA laws and code of conduct." PEMRA instructed television channels to "refrain/desist" from relaying such programmes and warned of legal action if the regulations were not followed. The television channels were thus prevented from covering live the procession of Justice Chaudhry from Islamabad to Abbottabad, or his address to the bar association on 2 June 2007.

The ban was an apparent implementation of the statement by Minister of Information and Broadcasting Muhammad Ali Durrani on 31 May, in which he warned the electronic media against airing any derogatory comments or slogans against the armed forces and the judiciary. Durrani asked private television channels to seek prior permission for coverage of sensitive events and reminded them that the rules of PEMRA prohibit electronic media from broadcasting programmes critical of the armed forced and judiciary. He warned that those violating the code of conduct formulated by the Supreme Court would be dealt with under the PEMRA rules. The minister accused the electronic media of demonstrating an "irresponsible attitude" in covering the judicial crisis, and added that this "negative propaganda" could affect direct foreign investment in the country and harm national institutions.

A resolution passed by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) in response to the statement by Durrani, said the granting of selective and conditional freedoms can be dangerous and the regulatory directives will deprive the public of their basic constitutional right of access to news. The resolution said the regime should be able to absorb criticism in the larger national interest and that the government's commitment to free media was currently undergoing a severe test. It also said that, despite having reservations about PEMRA rules and laws, the PBA has respected them and has always worked within the ambit of the Constitution. The PBA also called for amendments to PEMRA regulations.

In a separate statement, the president of the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE), Syed Faseih Iqbal, warned that any unilateral action by the government to restrict media coverage would prove to be "extremely counter-productive".

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