June 15, 2007
Dear President Musharraf
Call to Safeguard Press Freedom in Pakistan
I am writing to you on behalf of Hong Kong Journalists Association to express our deep concern over the increasing dangers faced by journalists in Pakistan and the growing restraints on the functioning of the media in the country.
In this letter which is dated the day before the one-year anniversary of when the body of Pakistan journalist Hayatullah Khan was found dumped with bullet wounds in North Waziristan, we fear there have been far too many targeted attacks on journalists and their family members, not to mention ongoing open threats and intimidation, to deter them from their professional pursuits. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), during an international mission they led in February this year, highlighted four cases of journalists killed since mid-2006, two cases of journalists’ immediate kin being targeted, not to mention innumerable cases of coercion and intimidation, including kidnapping and torture. (http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?index=4679&Language=EN)
We are alarmed at reports from news sources that political bodies, often linked to your government, are the ones responsible in generating fear and concern amongst journalists. For instance, the Mohajir Rabita Council (MRC) an affiliate of the Mottahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – a political party aligned with your government – has since released a list of twelve journalists, who were identified as ethnic and linguistic “chauvinists” and “enemies”. This list includes some senior office-bearers of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), an IFJ affiliate. The subsequent discovery of bullets wrapped in brown paper envelopes in the cars of three Karachi journalists on May 29, of whom two had been named in the MRC list, has engendered a real and terrifying sense of insecurity within Pakistan’s media community.
In addition to this, the deadly dangers that journalists in Pakistan face in the daily performance of their duties was highlighted by the death of a 22-year old freelance photographer, Mehboob Khan, in a suicide bombing that targeted a senior minister of the Pakistan Federal government, in the northwestern town of Charsadda on April 28.
Due to these mounting risks on the personal safety of journalists, we call for the Pakistan government to take immediate and imperative action to provide a secure environment for all Pakistan media personnel to work in.
Along with these grave concerns for the safety of journalists in Pakistan, we feel that there is undoubtedly a rising trend of intolerance for media freedom in Pakistan.
Although we acknowledge your announcement last Saturday June 9 to withdraw the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Ordinance 2007 (and instead require broadcasters to curtail themselves by self-regulation in the form of a code of conduct), a law which we consider would be a serious curtailment for the electronic media in Pakistan to operate freely, we are still deeply troubled by a clear pattern of intimidation towards the media in the country.
The most recent manifestation of this comes in the form of a prohibition of live coverage of events involving the suspended chief justice of Pakistan, Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. We have learnt that within hours of the amended PEMRA ordinance being decreed on June 4, two major TV channels – Aaj TV and Geo TV were blacked out – the former almost nationwide and the latter in the cities of Lahore and Islamabad.
We are convinced that this issue is an undesirable fallout of the snowballing political crisis involving Mr Chaudhry and you Mr Musharraf, the Pakistan army chief and president. To impose these totally unwarranted curbs on the media in the context, conforms to the classic – and ultimately self-defeating – practice of blaming the messenger.
The first indication that your government intended to use the PEMRA to restrain the live coverage of certain events, came from a statement by the Pakistan Information Minister, Mr Mohammad Ali Durrani. This explicit statement of intent came a day after your address to a military garrison in the town of Jehlum, when you suggested that the PEMRA’s powers of enforcement could be used to restrain “unbalanced reporting and presentation”.
Your warning that all Pakistanis must respect the country’s armed forces, was also repeated by the Information Minister the following day. We believe that with the debate on the role of the uniformed services in administration being a live issue in Pakistan, this is an effort by you as the President to place yourself above and beyond legitimate expressions of political dissent.
We have learned from reports that the Pakistan Government had sought on May 12, to stop the live coverage of a rally in Karachi involving Mr Chaudhry, but failed. As an affiliate body of the IFJ, we are deeply disturbed that there has been no effort since that
We realise there have been instances where you have listened to the public’s outcry. For instance, we are relieved to hear that the Pakistan government intervened to drop the charges made against approximately 200 individuals, including senior journalists and members of the PFUJ, during a protest demonstration in Islamabad. We nevertheless are deeply troubled that these individuals were charged in the first place for allegedly violating prohibition orders. For Pakistan to be free and democratic, we urge the Pakistan government to support the right for their people to have the freedom to express their beliefs and views by removing repugnant laws which prohibit them from doing this, such as protesting in public.
We urge the Pakistan government to explicitly distance itself from the coercive methods that have been employed by its friends and foes alike. We call upon you, President Musharraf, to take the initiative to rebuild trust, so that the media in Pakistan is at liberty to pursue its calling with the appropriate sense of commitment and purpose.
We believe that the working conditions in the Pakistan media have deteriorated to a point where a clear and unequivocal message of solidarity from the worldwide community of journalists is called for.
We therefore fully endorse the PFUJ calls for the prompt institution of comprehensive “safety measures” for journalists. These could include, as immediate measures, (1) life insurance for all journalists, photographers and cameramen; (2) safety training for which international groups could be invited to familiarise local bodies with global best practices; (3) provision of flak jackets and helmets for all journalists sent into conflict zones; and (4) complete medical cover for regular staff of established newspapers, agencies and channels.
We also express our solidarity with the demand for a fair wage settlement for the community of journalists in Pakistan under the institution of the national wage boards system.
Overall, it is time your government step up to become a supportive ally of the Pakistan media, and assist them in tackling the intensifying challenges which are pushing them to a point of dire crisis.