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Newspaper offices stormed by armed men, staff told to be prepared for "extreme consequences"

(PPF/IFEX) - On 1 January 2009, over thirty armed men belonging to the Sindh Nationalist Front (SNF) political party stormed the offices of the Sindhi-language daily "Awami Awaz" and threatened its staff.

The intruders, who were led by Anwar Gujjar, the SNF's Media Coordinator, held the staff hostage for about half an hour and inquired into the whereabouts of the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Jabbar Khattak, who was not present in the office at the time.

According to "Awami Awaz", the intruders said they had been sent by SNF Chairman Mumtaz Bhutto to issue a warning that the newspaper would not be allowed to circulate in the province of Sindh if it did not "mend its ways". They reminded the staff that the SNF had in previous years broken a reporter's legs and burned copies of the newspaper. They boasted that they had taught a "similar lesson" to even larger newspapers, such as "Dawn" and "Jang", and that the authorities had not dared to take any action against them. They said the newspaper was not stronger than their leader, Mumtaz Bhutto.

They used abusive language against Khattak and said he had been warned to behave but that it seemed he did not get the message. They said they knew other ways of getting their message across and that this was just a taste of things to come. They warned that the newspaper should be ready to face "extreme consequences."

Khattak told PPF that the SNF had been exerting pressure on the newspaper for some time to publish their statements without editing. Khattak made it clear to the SNF that the newspaper could not surrender its right to select and edit statements that it deemed suitable for publication. The direct cause of the showdown seemed to be that "Awami Awaz" ignored an ultimatum given by the SNF to publish an article by Mumtaz Bhutto, without editing, on the occasion of the 27 December 2008 anniversary of the death of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Khattak said he had been advised that there may be threats to his life and had been offered police protection.

The SNF denied any aggressive behaviour by its workers and said they had gone to the offices of the newspaper to protest against unfair coverage of their leader. Newspaper publishers present at an emergency meeting of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), chaired by its President Hameed Haroon, rejected the assertion of the SNF and said it was unacceptable to send dozens of armed men as a protest action.

Those present at the APNS meeting said this act of violence and hooliganism by the SNF constituted a serious attack on press freedom, which is enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan. They urged the government to be cognisant of the alarming situation, and to file a criminal case and take action against those responsible. They also urged the president and prime minister of Pakistan and the chief minister of Sindh to ensure the security and protection of publishers, staff members and newspaper premises.

The meeting also empowered the APNS human rights commissioner, Owais Aslam Ali, to conduct an investigation into the matter and to monitor acts of violence, harassment and intimidations against the media and take action in liaison with the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC) and international press and human rights organisations. The members of APNS also decided to take legal action against those responsible for acts of hooliganism and initiate other measures to safeguard press freedom in the country.

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