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Draconian curbs imposed on media following state of emergency declaration

(PPF/IFEX) - Draconian curbs were imposed on the Pakistani media as part of the state of emergency declared by President General Pervez Musharraf on 3 November 2007.

The measures to control and restrain the media included suspension of broadcasts of all international news channels as well as national private television channels throughout the country until further notice. Cable operators have been directed to only broadcast entertainment programmes.

A number of websites of international and national news organisations were also blocked on November 3. Telephone and SMS service in the capital city of Islamabad were also suspended for some hours on that day.

Authorities also raided a private television channel and two private FM radio stations, confiscating equipment of one radio station. There have been a number of attacks on journalists covering protest against the imposition of emergency measures.

The government has also made important changes to the laws relating to the media. The Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), which has replaced the permanent constitution of the country, specifically suspends Article 19 of the constitution relating to freedom of the press. In addition the government has introduced two separate ordinances imposing severe curbs on print and electronic media.

Police raided the offices of the private television station Aaj in Islamabad in the early hours on 4 November and attempted to confiscate broadcasting equipment. Press reports quoting Talat Hussain, news director of Aaj television station, said police wanted to impound a van that is used to broadcast live coverage. The station refused to hand over the equipment as the police team did not have the necessary legal documents.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) also raided two private radio stations, FM103 in Karachi and FM99 in Islamabad. The PEMRA confiscated equipment of FM103 in the raid.

The action against the television and radio channels followed the promulgation of the PEMRA ordinance that gives it the power to confiscate equipment and to bar entrance to their premises for 30 days.

The PEMRA amendment as well as amendments to the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, prohibit printing or broadcasting of "anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organ of the state".

Non-compliance with the new restrictions can be punished by suspension of newspaper publication for up to 30 days, and, in case of television stations, by up to three years in jail and a Rs10 million (approx. US$164,000) fine or both.

The amendments prohibit media from publishing or broadcasting "any material that is likely to jeopardise or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order."

The amendment to the PEMRA ordinance bans television discussions on "sub judice matters or anything which is known to be false or baseless or is mala fide or for which there exist sufficient reasons to believe that the same may be false, baseless or mala fide."

The amendments restrict publication or broadcast of photographs or video of suicide bombers, terrorists (except if required by the law-enforcement agencies for the purpose of investigation), bodies of victims of terrorist activities, statements and pronouncements of militants and extremist elements and any other thing which may, in any way, promote aid or abet terrorist activities or terrorism, or their graphic and printed representation based on sectarianism and ethnicity or racialism.

There have been a number of incidents of attacks on the journalists by police and other law enforcement agencies. In Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan province, paramilitary personnel stopped the news team of ARY television station, snatched their camera, removed the film and handed back the camera after issuing a warning, that they could be put behind bars. In Rawalpindi, the police assaulted reporters and cameramen covering a lawyers protest and also tried to snatch their cameras. Such actions and warnings have increased concerns about possible action against journalists and television anchors.

The curbs have been widely condemned by media organisations. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has criticised the government actions as "the worst kind of repression against media in Pakistan in thirty years" and has decided to resist the actions. The Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) has condemned curbs on media and vowed to launch a struggle for freedom of the press.

The All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), the national organisation of publishers has called an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee to consider the impact of the government's declaration of a state of emergency on freedom of the press in the country.

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