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TEN IFEX MEMBERS CONDEMN GOVERNMENT'S ATTEMPTS TO MUZZLE MEDIA

Ten International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) members led by the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) are urging President Pervez Musharraf to revoke all orders that have curbed media freedom in Pakistan since he suspended a Supreme Court chief justice in March.

Since Musharraf's 9 March decision to arbitrarily dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the authorities have harassed, threatened and even violently attacked Pakistani media that have reported on the ensuing anti-government protests and peaceful campaign to restore Chaudhry, the IFEX members say in a letter to Musharraf.

In a joint letter, the IFEX members expressed relief that after nationwide protests, the president suspended a controversial decree that empowered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) to halt broadcast transmissions, seize equipment and increase fines tenfold for violations, among other measures. But it was just one concession (and not a permanent one) in a series of systematic attacks on the press by the government since the chief justice's suspension.

Just recently, on 2 June, PEMRA prohibited independent TV channels from broadcasting programmes on the judicial crisis. A government minister had said earlier that the coverage could affect the direct foreign investment in the country and harm the nation's institutions. So on 3 and 4 June, two major television channels, Geo TV and Aaj TV, were blacked out by cable operators on government orders and were unavailable in large parts of the country.

On 12 May, one of the darkest days for the country following Chaudhry's dismissal, 42 people died in violence when government supporters fought with opposition activists to prevent Chaudhry from entering Karachi. Meanwhile, armed groups opened fire on Aaj TV, which was covering the clashes, and set fire to more than a dozen vehicles in the station parking lot. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), at least six journalists and media workers were wounded. Security forces stood by without intervening, even though the television channel broadcast live coverage of the assault on its premises and made many appeals for protection.

Legal pressure has also been exerted on independent media channels. On 22 April, PEMRA accused Aaj TV of inciting violence by covering Chaudhry's case while it was pending before the Supreme Judicial Council.

Individual journalists themselves have been singled out and harassed for covering Chaudhry's dismissal. According to PPF, on 22 May, the Mohajir Rabita Council (MRC), an ally of Musharraf's ruling party, issued a "hit list" of 12 popular Pakistani journalists and labeled them "chauvinists" and "enemies". A week later, three journalists, two of whom were on the list, found identical envelopes in their cars, each containing a 30mm bullet. Also in May, PPF reports that Shakeel Turabi, editor-in-chief of a local news agency, was brutally beaten because his agency reported that individuals who had assaulted Chaudhry were intelligence officers and not policemen, as the government had claimed.

These actions "present a picture of an alarming deterioration in the freedom of expression environment in Pakistan," said the IFEX members. "They also raise serious doubts about your government's often-stated commitment to freedom of expression."

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) continues to document the steady erosion of press freedom under Musharraf. In October 2002, Pakistan was ranked at 119 out of 166 countries in the RSF Press Freedom Index. By December 2006, it had slipped to 157.

IFJ called for media organisations around the world to join an International Day of Action on 15 June, to protest at local Pakistan embassies to draw attention to the deteriorating situation of press freedom and journalists' safety.

IFJ and its affiliate, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), also called for solidarity with Pakistan's "most vulnerable" journalists - those working in the tribal areas. On 17 June, Noor Ahmed Solangi, a reporter for the Sindh-language daily Khabroon, was gunned down by two unknown assailants in Pirjo Goth, in the interior of Sindh. On 2 June, Dr. Noor Hakim Khan, a reporter for the "Daily Pakistan" and vice-president of the Tribal Union of Journalists, was one of five men killed when a targeted bomb exploded on their vehicle in the northwestern Bajaur region, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Visit these links:
- IFEX joint action: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/84231/
- PPF alerts: http://tinyurl.com/2q8kc6
- Human Rights Watch Capsule Report: http://tinyurl.com/3y779f
- IFJ on 12 May: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/83355/
- IFJ on International Day of Action: http://tinyurl.com/3dulmh
- IFJ on Hakim: http://tinyurl.com/2lvcau
- IFJ on Solangi: http://tinyurl.com/38rt43
- FNJ's memorandum to Musharraf: http://tinyurl.com/2jpq8q
- RSF Press Freedom Index: http://tinyurl.com/wry7t
(Photo: President Pervez Musharraf, courtesy of www.pakistaniat.com)

(19 June 2007)

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