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New coalition government leaders pledge to remove media constraints within 100 days; Musharraf supports national dialogue to ease media-government confrontation

(IFJ/IFEX) - The following is a combined 14 and 15 March 2008 IFJ media release:

Pakistan's New Government Pledges to IFJ - Media Freedom Will Be Secure in "100 days of Reform"

14/03/08 - The leaders of the new coalition Government in Pakistan have assured the International Federation of Journalists that obstacles to media freedom that have blighted relations with journalists in recent times will be removed within 100 days of the new government taking over next week.

Asif Ali Zardari, co-Chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and widower of Benazir Bhutto, the PPP leader assassinated in December, told an IFJ delegation yesterday that media reforms were central elements of the 100-day reform programme that will be put into effect once the new Parliament meets on Monday and a new Government is sworn in.

The PPP, Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Awami National Party emerged as clear winners in last month's elections and together will form a new government. Zardari said there would be more open government with more television allowed into Parliament, changes in the discredited administration of broadcasting, repeal of laws such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordinance and the Maintenance of Public Order Act, and a fresh start made in building relations with media and journalists.

"There is real optimism that journalism will be made safer and government made more transparent," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary who is leading the delegation in Islamabad. "Once these promises are made good we will see new maturity in relations between journalists and those in power."

The IFJ and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) have called for a national debate on the need for a fresh start for media and democracy in the country. A meeting of journalists, editors and media owners from all sectors will be held on Saturday to discuss plans to strengthen the ethics and quality of media, including a proposal to establish a National Forum on Media and Democracy involving the authorities, civil society, and media.

Earlier in the day the IFJ delegation, which includes Sunanda Deshapriya from Sri Lanka, also representing the International News Safety Institute and Mike Dobbie, from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance in Australia, will meet with President Pervez Musharraf who was the architect of emergency rule last year and its controversial media clampdown.

The issue of media safety will be high on the agenda following incidents on March 13 when cameramen and journalists were attacked, chased and beaten while reporting on a demonstration organised by the women's movement of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM-H) outside the Karachi Press Club, according to the PFUJ. A media driver was taken hostage by armed protesters, who warned journalists not to broadcast video footage.

In addition, three journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the past four months. Five journalists were seriously injured when a bomb exploded at a politician's press conference in Khuzdar, Baluchistan, in the lead-up to the national elections in February. Khalid Khosa and Hameed Baluch, both journalists with the daily Azadi, were reported missing in Baluchistan in the past two weeks.

The mission delegates, including the IFJ General Secretary, Sunanda Deshapriya and Mike Dobbie, are meeting with members of the caretaker government, leaders of the new coalition government, journalists' unions and associations and media publishing houses to encourage fresh initiatives for a new chapter in relations between journalism, the state and civil society.

The mission has met with major media, journalists who have been targeted by the previous government and officials responsible for media regulation. "There is a sudden change of mood in the country with anticipation of historic change," said White. "But the challenges are still in place. If political will for reform materialises much-needed reform within media to improve the social and professional status of journalists across the country will follow."

Musharraf Backs IFJ Calls for Change as Journalists Demand a Fresh Start for Media in Pakistan

15/03/08 - President Pervez Musharraf has supported efforts to improve the independence of media in Pakistan. In a meeting with a delegation of the International Federation of Journalists today he supported a new national dialogue to ease a political confrontation between independent journalists and government.

Musharraf accused some of his media critics of "telling lies" but agreed that a new dialogue involving the authorities, media, civil society and journalists was necessary. "Independent media are vital for democracy," said the President. "I am a disappointed man with the media but I agree this is the time that, if the media is to continue on a path of independence and responsibility, it will be good for Pakistan."

The IFJ and its affiliate, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), have proposed a national debate on the need for a fresh start for media and democracy in the country. The IFJ mission presented the plan to President Musharraf at their meeting with him in Rawalpindi today.

The plan was subsequently unanimously endorsed later at a meeting in Islamabad of more than 60 leading journalists from across the country, who agreed on an action plan to improve media self-regulation and to seek redress for many long-standing industrial relations issues relating to working conditions, safety, training and pay.

"Journalists in Pakistan are boldly taking the opportunity presented by the change in government to improve the quality of journalism in the country and to improve working conditions," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary who is leading the mission to Pakistan.

"They have started a debate about how to improve journalism and it's hoped that other stakeholders in the media, as well as civil society representatives, public officials and elected representatives will also participate."

The IFJ mission, which includes Sunanda Deshapriya from Sri Lanka, also representing the International News Safety Institute and Mike Dobbie, from the IFJ-affiliate the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance in Australia, also used their meeting with President Musharraf to raise concerns over safety of journalists.

The mission asked the President to ensure security and police forces investigate attacks, including kidnappings, of journalists in Karachi last week. The delegation also pressed him to encourage media owners to implement the Seventh Wages Board award improving the earnings of low-paid journalists and media staff which some media owners have steadfastly refused to implement.

The PFUJ will create a steering committee prepare a National Forum called for in a document Pakistan: A Fresh Start for Media and Democracy endorsed by the journalists' meeting. The initiative stresses the importance of safety, the need to improve media quality and ethical standards, and calls for involvement of journalists throughout the country, including those working in the regions and the troubled tribal areas. A key issue is to improve working conditions of journalists and to secure unions rights and representation across the industry.

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries.

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