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FAIR ELECTIONS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT FREE MEDIA, SAY IFEX MEMBERS

Fair and free elections will not be possible in Pakistan next month without a free media, which does not exist because of continuing media restrictions imposed by President Pervez Musharraf, say Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and other IFEX members.

"Despite claims to the contrary by the government, the Pakistani media continues to work under severe pressures and constraints since the imposition of the state of emergency in the country," says PPF. "The tamed media in Pakistan is thus not able to vigorously present the complete spectrum of viewpoints to enable voters to make educated decisions during the elections."

Musharraf declared a state of emergency on 3 November that severely curtailed media freedoms in Pakistan. Despite the lifting of emergency rule on 15 December, many of these freedoms have not yet been restored.

Two ordinances that prohibit the media from broadcasting or publishing critical news are still in place and could land journalists in jail for up to three years. They are now being applied to restrict fair coverage of the election campaign, says the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Dozens of privately-owned TV and radio stations that were suspended on 3 November have only been able to resume broadcasting after signing a detailed "code of conduct". GEO News, the country's most popular TV news station, refused to sign the code and is still not accessible in Pakistan. Many of GEO TV's leading news anchors have been banned from broadcasting.

Meanwhile, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), PTV, Pakistan's only national, terrestrial-broadcast TV station, is directly controlled by the government. Its coverage of the legislative elections has been heavily biased in favour of Musharraf's followers.

IFJ, along with its affiliate, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PJUF), is demanding the suspension of Pakistan's media regulatory body. IFJ claims the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is "misusing its authority" and its officials have been biased and "acting like police."

PFUJ also reports that threats have been made against private television channel ROHI, where staff has been ordered to "behave" or face consequences. PFUJ believes the threats are in relation to ROHI's coverage of conflict in southern Punjab.

Emboldened by the hostile atmosphere against the media, local authorities throughout the country have started taking vindictive action against journalists, says PPF.

During riots that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on 28 December, the police in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh brought criminal charges against 34 journalists suspected to have taken part in the violence, reports PPF. Of those, 19 work for the Sindh daily "Kawish" and its affiliated television channel KTN. Police registered the cases under the anti-terrorism and anti-riot acts, and raided and looted the journalists' homes.

But the reporters say they were merely doing their jobs and were being targeted because of their reporting.

Nor are domestic journalists only at risk. Last week, freelance journalist Nicholas Schmidle was ordered to leave Pakistan, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Schmidle had written an article for the 6 January issue of "The New York Times Magazine" called "Next-Gen Taliban", in which he interviewed Taliban leaders from political hotspot Quetta, in Baluchistan. His editor says that Schmidle was given no explanation for his deportation but that it "clearly was connected to his writing rather than anything else he was doing."

According to RSF, Pakistan was the most dangerous Asian country for the media in 2007. Six journalists were killed in suicide bombings or contract killings, at least 30 journalists were seriously injured, and at least 120 were arrested last year, says RSF.

Visit these links:
- PPF: http://www.pakistanpressfoundation.org/default.asp
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=5685&Language=EN
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24976
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/397djg
- PFUJ: http://www.pfuj.info/
- Rural Media Network Pakistan: http://online-rmnp.tripod.com
(Photo courtesy of PFUJ)

(15 January 2008)

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