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President Pervez Musharraf has declared emergency rule and slammed down severe restrictions on Pakistan's news media as they try to cover the country's political crisis, report Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

After suspending the constitution on 3 November - including articles related to freedom of the press - to respond to a "growing Islamic militant threat", Musharraf ordered a halt to broadcasts by privately-owned TV channels in all the country's major cities.

Private TV channel Aaj TV in Islamabad and two FM radio stations, FM103 in Karachi and FM99 in Islamabad, were raided by police - a new ordinance allows for the media regulatory authority PEMRA to confiscate equipment and bar entrances to media premises. According to PPF, some mobile phone communications were also cut, and international and national news websites were blocked. State-run Pakistan TV was the only news broadcaster still on domestic airwaves as of 6 November.

Yesterday (5 November) in Karachi, authorities tried to close down the printing press of the country's largest media house, Jang Media Group, as punishment for publishing a newspaper supplement in the daily "Awam" on events in the country since the state of emergency was announced. But management and employees refused to stop publishing. Five journalists and four activists who were protesting the raid outside the press club in Karachi were later arrested, says PPF. Some were reportedly beaten with batons.

Up to 1,500 opposition leaders, lawyers, activists and journalists were rounded up and detained or put under house arrest within the first 24 hours of emergency rule, including well-known human rights activist and journalist I.A. Rehman. Opposition groups say that nearly 3,500 people have been detained. In Rawalpindi, police assaulted reporters and cameramen covering a lawyers' protest and also tried to snatch their cameras.

The government has also put forward new regulations on the media, including making it illegal to report critically about senior government officials, the army and government policies; discuss Supreme Court cases challenging Musharraf's re-election in October; broadcast live coverage of anti-government protests; or report on the results of attacks by anti-government militants. Violations of the new law can result in up to three years in prison, fines of 10 million Rupees (US$165,000), and suspension of broadcasting licenses.

The curbs have been widely condemned by IFEX members and local media organisations, including the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), who calls the moves the "worst kind of repression against the media in Pakistan in 30 years." PPF is currently organising a joint action by IFEX members denouncing Musharraf's measures. ARTICLE 19 is also calling on Western governments to use their influence to bring about the release of activists and a repeal of the oppressive media laws.

The U.S., a main ally, has expressed deep concerns, but said Musharraf's actions would not affect military support of Pakistan. "This is as big a test for the Bush administration as it is for Musharraf," says Human Rights Watch. "Thus far, Washington's long support for a military government has merely led to an unprecedented political crisis that could lead Pakistan to disaster, not least in the effort to address international terrorism."

Journalists remain defiant. Hundreds gathered at press clubs in Islamabad and Lahore on 5 November to protest the new media laws. Others are refusing to report government functions or abide official orders demanding a change in their editorial policies, says IFJ. A global day of action is also being prepared.

Critics say the measures amount to martial law and were enacted because of concern over Musharraf's political longevity. The Supreme Court is due to hear a petition challenging Musharraf's eligibility to serve as president again, and is reportedly ruling against him. Elections are currently scheduled for January.

So far, the government's restrictions have mainly silenced broadcast media; according to CPJ, newspapers continue to appear, many with headlines critical of the president's moves.

Visit these links:
- PPF:
- CPJ:
- Human Rights Watch:
- IFJ:
- RSF:
- Musharraf's media decrees:
(Photo: Security throughout much of Islamabad has been beefed up in the wake of Musharraf's 3 November announcement of emergency rule. Photo courtesy of David Swanson/IRIN)

(6 November 2007)

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