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GOVERNMENT TABLES BILL TO REMOVE MEDIA RESTRICTIONS

Pakistan's coalition government has moved to repeal some of the draconian media restrictions imposed by President Pervez Musharraf last year, report the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), its local affiliate the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Information Minister Sherry Rehman introduced a parliamentary bill last week proposing to end the ban on live broadcasts and also to scrap punishments, including jail terms and heavy fines, for journalists who "defame" the president, the government or the army.

In comments made to journalists, Rehman also promised to create a compensation fund for families of journalists killed or injured on duty, and a consultative media body comprised of journalists and government officials, reports CPJ.

"We have been urging a fresh start and now it looks as though we are on the way," says IFJ, which visited Pakistan following this year's elections and is working with PFUJ to put the media crisis back on the political agenda.

But not all of Musharraf's offending amendments, such as the government-mandated "code of conduct", have been repealed, report the IFEX members. Dozens of privately-owned TV and radio stations that were suspended on 3 November were only able to resume broadcasting after signing the 14-page code.

PFUJ and PPF welcomed the bill but also called for the repeal of all laws that restrict freedom of expression, even those in effect before Musharraf declared emergency rule. PPF says that the original Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordinance will continue to place "unacceptable restrictions to freedom of expression."

PPF points out that Pakistan is the only country in South Asia without a clearly defined policy to promote community radio, which would have the capacity to reach audiences in rural communities. Access to information laws are limited and do not apply to provincial governments. Meanwhile, PFUJ has been calling for PEMRA to be replaced altogether, by a self-regulatory body.

"The recent judicial and governance crisis in Pakistan highlighted yet again that the country is ill served, especially in times of crisis, by the long-standing state policy of restricting the media," says PPF. "We hope the government will take effective and timely steps to change the mindset of state functionaries towards freedom of expression and access to information."

Despite Rehman's pledges, journalists continue to be targeted. Five reporters covering violent clashes between rival political groups in Karachi last week were attacked by masked men who destroyed their equipment, says PPF. Private channels GEO TV and ARY TV, were taken off the air for two hours on 14 April after repeatedly broadcasting footage of one of the attacks, says PPF. Rehman said this was a decision made by cable operators without input from PEMRA, reports CPJ.

And just yesterday, a journalist was killed in the unstable province of Balochistan (see "Bloody week for local journalists": http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/92634/ ).

Visit these links:
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=6054&Language=EN
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/news/2008/asia/pak11apr08na.html
- PPF: http://tinyurl.com/5jth8z
- PFUJ: http://pfuj.info/pfuj/
- IFEX Pakistan page: http://tinyurl.com/23z96j
(15 April 2008)

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