Attacks on the Press   |   Pakistan

Attacks on the Press in 2008: Pakistan

Military leader Pervez Musharraf resigned as president in August under threat of impeachment, leaving a decidedly mixed legacy on press freedom. As his power waned in late 2007, Musharraf shut down all independent broadcasters for a time and then tried to impose a rigid “code of conduct” on the stations.

That said, his government’s efforts to modernize the country left behind a larger and more open media universe than the one he inherited after ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Though circulation of newspapers and magazines in 11 languages held steady during the Musharraf regime, the growth of broadcast news was notable. More than 25 all-news stations operated in 2008, with many others carrying news shows along with general programming. Almost all were available across the country on cable. When Musharraf came to power, Pakistanis had access only to the official Pakistan TV, international satellite channels, and a few privately owned entertainment channels.

A shaky elected coalition replaced the Musharraf government. After a round of political deal-making, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party was able to stay in power with a coalition headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 while campaigning for parliament. Indictments of Zardari on corruption charges had helped bring down his wife’s governments in 1990 and 1996; the cases were suspended as the Musharraf regime decamped. His coalition partner, Sharif, had also been indicted on corruption charges. Despite corruption allegations and policies that had led to economic stagnation, Zardari and Sharif were the two principal figures to replace Musharraf and his military-backed government.

Given the corrupt dynastic nature of Pakistan’s civilian governments, and the fact that the army steps in every decade or so to take control—Musharraf’s power grab was the third time the military had seized power since the country’s founding in 1947—most observers saw the post-Musharraf era as a fragile opportunity for democracy. Few expected a prolonged period of stability.

A truck bomb that devastated Islamabad’s five-star Marriott Hotel and killed at least 57 people in September was a gruesome indicator of what could be ahead for the Zardari government. Ensuing accusations pointed to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and India as the likely culprits, or targets, depending on which source you cared to believe. Security was further threatened when India, with the support of the United States, openly accused Pakistan of hosting Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization believed to be behind the devastating November attacks on Mumbai.

While the new government and its information minister, former journalist Sherry Rehman, seemed to promise positive change in media policies, problems soon arose. Zaffar Abbas, a ranking editor at Dawn, one of Pakistan’s most widely read English-language newspapers, told CPJ that soon after the new government took power, newsrooms began receiving phone calls from officials complaining about critical coverage. “They said our criticism was jeopardizing the country’s new democracy, and the military said we were glorifying the militants when we would report on their activities or print interviews with them,” Abbas said. “I’m beginning to wonder if the first civilian government after Musharraf will be able to learn to live with the media environment he left behind.”

The question is critical: Journalism has been one of Pakistan’s deepest repositories of democracy, despite all the animosity showered upon it by Pakistani governments over 61 years. The news media, in their 2007 coverage of a nationwide movement of lawyers angered by Musharraf’s sacking of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, were key players in mobilizing public opinion against the military government in the months before it fell.

The media may be venerable and burgeoning, but journalism in Pakistan is a profession with shortcomings. As the country grew more unstable after Zardari came to power, Najam Sethi, a 1999 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award and the editor-in-chief of the influential Daily Times, criticized electronic media in particular for being overly emotional. Broadcasters, Sethi said, were focusing on issues of national honor rather than reality-based solutions to Pakistan’s pressing problems. The broader criticism: Though the media could mobilize opinion on a big “yes” or “no” question such as ending military rule, they were not doing as good a job of building a democratic culture through professional journalism. To address such weaknesses, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) drafted a code of ethics in August that emphasized media independence, legal protection of journalists, employee rights, and a system of self-regulation that “promotes editorial independence and high standards of accuracy, reliability, and quality in media.” It was circulated for comment to journalists, editors, publishers, and broadcast owners before going into a final draft for approval, most likely in early 2009.

An international reporter was missing and believed kidnapped in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in late year. Khadija Abdul Qahaar, along with a driver and a translator, disappeared in mid-November. Qahaar, a Canadian who changed her name from Beverly Giesbrecht after converting to Islam, was a blogger for the news site Jihadunspun. Qahaar had launched the site to provide independent news coverage of the fighting in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

At least five journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2008. Chishti Mujahid, a columnist for the newsweekly Akbar-e-Jehan, was killed in a targeted attack outside his home in Quetta in February. Mujahid, an eye doctor who had written a column for more than 20 years, was shot in the head and chest by an unidentified gunman as he left his house. The spokesman for a banned insurgent group, the Baluch Liberation Army, claimed responsibility for the murder in a phone call to the Quetta Press Club, saying Mujahid was “against” the secessionist Baluch cause, local news reports said.

Later in February, Siraj Uddin, a correspondent for the daily Nation, was killed when a suicide bomber took the lives of more than 40 people at the funeral of a slain police officer in Mingora. Two other journalists were injured in the attack. Mingora is in the Swat Valley in the tumultuous North West Frontier Province, where antigovernment militants have been fighting a seesaw battle with the government to assert control.

In May, Express TV reporter Mohammed Ibrahim was gunned down by unidentified men outside Khar, the main town of the Bajaur tribal area of the North West Frontier Province. He was returning by motorcycle from an interview with local Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar. Reuters quoted a local journalist as saying the attackers took Ibrahim’s camera and the videotape of the interview. Ibrahim also worked for the Urdu-language Daily Express.

Abdul Aziz Shaheen, a reporter for the Urdu-language daily Azadi, was among at least 25 people killed in an August 29 Pakistani airstrike that hit a Taliban lockup in the Swat Valley where the journalist was being held captive. Militants had abducted Shaheen on August 27, according to local news reports. Local journalists believed the Taliban had been angered by Shaheen’s reporting, said Owais Aslim Ali, secretary-general of the Pakistan Press Foundation.

Armed men apparently enraged by Abdul Razzak Johra’s reports on drug trafficking dragged the Royal TV reporter from his Punjab home and shot him, according to PFUJ. Colleagues said Johra, 45, had received threats telling him to stop covering the drug trade. The November slaying came a day after Johra’s latest report had aired nationally.

In April, former provincial minister Altaf Unar was arrested in the 2006 killing of Munir Sangi, a cameraman for the Sindhi-language Kawish Television Network. Sangi was shot and killed while covering a gunfight between members of the Unar and Abro tribes in the town of Larkana, in southeast Pakistan’s Sindh province. Some journalists dismissed the arrest as politically motivated. Unar, a powerful local leader, remained free despite the charge.

As in the past, journalist killings went largely uninvestigated. At least 10 slayings since 1998 were unsolved, which put Pakistan 12th on CPJ’s Impunity Index. Compiled for the first time in 2008, the index calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population. The higher a nation’s ranking, the more dangerous it is for the press.

A high-level government investigation into the 2006 slaying of reporter Hayatullah Khan remained secret. Khan was abducted in December 2005 after reporting evidence that the U.S. was responsible for an attack on a house along the Afghan border that killed an al-Qaeda leader and several villagers. Such U.S. attacks and collateral damage were commonplace in 2008, but at the time, the Musharraf government was eager to deny American involvement.

The investigation by High Court Justice Mohammed Reza Khan (no relation to the reporter) was submitted to the Musharraf government in August 2006. Because of the political implications of Hayatullah’s reporting, many Pakistani journalists said they suspected the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) played a role in the killing. The ISI, a mix of military and intelligence agencies, is seen as the most powerful force within the country.


ASIA: Regional Analysis
Media Freedom Stalls as China Sets the Course

ASIA: Country Summaries
Afghanistan Pakistan
Burma Philippines
China Sri Lanka
India Thailand
Malaysia Vietnam
Nepal Other Attacks and Developments in the Region


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