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"Aaj Kal" newspaper, staff threatened by Lal Masjid activists over cartoon of cleric's wife, editorial criticising religious militancy

(PPF/IFEX) - "Aaj Kal", an Urdu-language daily published from Lahore, has been threatened by Islamic activists angered by the publication of a cartoon about Umme Hassaan, wife of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz and also an editorial criticizing the religious militancy.

The Lal Masjid, located in Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad, was the centre of a stand-off between the mosque administration and students of the affiliated seminary, who barricaded themselves inside the mosque, and the government. The crisis culminated in a bloody military operation on 7 July 2007, in which scores of people, including male and female students of the seminary and paramilitary personnel, were killed and over one hundred others were injured. The Musharraf government has been widely criticized for highhandedness and scores of students are still missing after the government attack on the mosque.

Umme Hassaan organized the Lal Mosque Martyred Women's Conference in Islamabad on Wednesday, 9 July 2008 in memory of the women killed in the military operation.

According to "Aaj Kal" management, speeches were also made against the newspaper by protestors who had gathered outside Lal Masjid on 11 July. According to Najam Sethi, Editor-in-Chief of "Aaj Kal", protestors raised banners with slogans against the daily, its editor-in-chief and publisher. They accused the newspaper of being anti-jihad and threatened to "teach them a lesson", he added. The newspaper's staff also received threatening telephone calls in Lahore and Islamabad.

The newspaper had recently published a cartoon depicting Umme Hassaan instructing female students on how to nab "immoral women". The newspaper had also published an editorial against religious terrorism and militancy in Pakistan.

The threats against "Aaj Kal" have been widely condemned by media organizations. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) condemned the attempts by non-state elements to take the law into their own hands and issue threats designed to silence the daily for its outspoken views on rising extremism in the country. Arif Nizami, President of the CPNE, said: "We see this as an attack on the freedom of the press and condemn it strongly."

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), in a statement issued on 12 July, termed the threats to "Aaj Kal" an attempt to silence dissent and expressed concern over the rising trend of violence from non-state actors against media personnel.

The PFUJ reminded clerics of Lal Mosque that one photojournalist, Javed Khan, died while covering the military operation, while another journalist was still under treatment and fighting for his life.

The PFUJ said that the media gave full coverage to the events last year and again on its first anniversary. "We expect them to behave honourably if any newspaper or channel criticizes their politics in its editorials. They also have a right to protest if 'Aaj Kal' or any other newspaper or channel does not give them due coverage. But they should respect the dissenting voice," the statement said.

In a statement, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also expressed concerns over the threats to the newspaper. The statement said: "The HRCP believes that it is the obligation of the government to protect its citizens and particularly the media from being browbeaten."

Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman also condemned the threatening phone calls and messages. Ms. Rehman assured the publication that the government would provide complete protection to "Aaj Kal" offices.

For further information on the Khan case, see:

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