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RSF mission finds alarming impact on press freedom in Swat valley following imposition of Islamic law

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 2 April 2009 RSF press release:

Fact-finding visit by Reporters Without Borders to Swat valley of fear

Reporters Without Borders is alarmed about the impact that the imposition of the Sharia (Islamic law) in Pakistan's northern Swat valley is having on press freedom. Following a fact-finding visit, the press freedom organisation urges both federal and provincial authorities and Taliban leaders to guarantee the freedom and safety of journalists in the region.

The growing use of violence that culminated in reporter Mosa Khankhel's murder in February 2009 is now compounded by a climate of fear and self-censorship that has turned the Swat valley into one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists, Reporters Without Borders said. It would be deplorable if Taliban groups used enforcement of the Sharia to restrict the freedom of expression of its inhabitants, including journalists, even more.

The fear imposed by the Taliban, including Maulana (religious leader) Qazi Fazlullah and his illegal radio broadcasts, is directly affecting free expression. The terror has increased the tendency of journalists to censor themselves. Women's rights and abuses committed by Maulana Fazlullah's followers are being covered less and less by the local press.

Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the founder of the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariah Muhammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of the Prophet Muhammad's Sharia TNSM), told Reporters Without Borders that he believed in press freedom. He nonetheless also claimed that the Sharia forbids discussing past events, including the actions of Taliban activists.

The Taliban are imposing their law in the region, forbidding women to go out unaccompanied and unveiled, and have destroyed more than 100 schools for girls. They also forbid any criticism of Islam and punish those who listen to music or sell DVDs.

The 16 February 2009 accord allowing Islamic courts and enforcement of the Sharia in the Swat valley in return for an end to fighting by the militants has restored a semblance of stability but has already had a negative impact on press freedom. Independent journalism is going to be more and more difficult, a TV reporter said. "Who is going to protect me from the Taliban militants operating openly in the towns and villages? We are no longer going to be able to do independent reporting on the activities of the Taliban."

The media have been badly scarred by the two years of fighting, in which journalists have been caught in the crossfire between the army and the Taliban. Both sides have prevented the press from talking about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of enforcement of the Sharia or the fight against terrorism.

For the full text of this release, see: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30742

For further information on the Khankhel case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/100898

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