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Pakistani Journalists Decry Censorship, Plan Protest

FILE: Pakistani police try to stop journalists during a rally to mark World Press Freedom Day in Islamabad on May 3.
FILE: Pakistani police try to stop journalists during a rally to mark World Press Freedom Day in Islamabad on May 3.

One of the largest journalist associations in Pakistan has called for an end to “unannounced censorship imposed by state institutions” and called for nationwide protests on October 9.

In a highly critical statement, Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), called on the country’s new civilian government to break its silence on the issue and heed domestic and international criticism of growing limitations on press freedom in Pakistan.

“The new government is ignoring the issue and avoiding confronting those institutions who are systematically trying to silence print and electronic media through coercion, control of advertising, harassment, and even attacks against journalists,” the October 2 statement noted.

While criticizing self-censorship, the PFUJ resisted naming the institutions it says are responsible for imposing censorship. Global press freedom watchdogs, Pakistani journalists, and politicians, however, blame the country’s powerful military for limiting the press during a tumultuous year when a former prime minister was sent to prison, parliamentary elections were marred by rigging accusations and the military faced protests and growing questions over its role.

The Pakistani military denies imposing censorship or meddling in politics.

The PFUJ offers startling insights into the state of media and press freedom in Pakistan, which is struggling with instability, anemic civilian authority, a sluggish economy, and rampant poverty.

“In order to control the media, a state institution set up radio stations and television channels through frontmen and embedded journalists in private [television] channels and publishing houses,” the statement noted without naming the institution.

Pakistan had only one state television station at the turn of the century. Since the industry opened to private investors in 2003, however, the country now has more than 100 news and entertainment television channels.

But Pakistani journalists say most of the news channels are owned by rich tycoons who pay little attention to journalistic principles and only aim to rack up maximum profits.

“The media owners have taken over editors in their newsrooms, and thus the role of editor -- which had played an important role [in preserving] the freedom of expression -- has been eliminated,” the PFUJ statement noted. “Most journalists and media houses have started self-censoring to avoid the wrath of the state institutions.”

Last week, Pakistani and international rights watchdogs, journalists, and politicians condemned a court order for the arrest of Cyril Almeida. Writing for Pakistan’s English-language daily Dawn, Almeida had published an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that was critical of the military.

Dawn and Geo, the country’s leading news television channel, faced unnuanced bans on distribution and broadcasting this year. Several high-profile journalists were attacked. Most local and international correspondents are prevented, in the name of security, from accessing the southwestern province of Balochistan and districts of former tribal areas that are now merged into northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the PFUJ said.

“Dozens of journalists have been harassed, attacked, and even killed in Pakistan, but the perpetrators have not been traced by the intelligence agencies,” the statement noted. “Sometimes, police plainly refuse to investigate the attacks because of pressure from certain quarters.”

The PFUJ, an umbrella organization of various journalist groups, formed a coalition with lawyers, rights activists, media organizations and trade unions to hold demonstrations across Pakistan.

“The protest on October 9 is a warmup for the long struggle the PFUJ is launching for press freedom,” says Ayub Jan Sarhandi, PFUJ’s secretary general.

The PFUJ’s concerns reverberated in the Pakistani Parliament. Lawmaker Bilawal Bhutto Zardai, leader of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, called on the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf-led administration to address threats to press freedom.

“Will the government guarantee freedom of expression in Pakistan, freedom of the press in Pakistan -- our fundamental rights under a democratic state?” he asked lawmakers on October 3. “We must learn to accept differences of opinion and constructive criticism. When we leave no room for dissent, we leave no room for progress.”

After assuming office in August, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry announced plans to end political censorship on state television. Last month, he told Reuters his ministry would investigate media complaints about intimidation but so far they had received no complaints.

In June Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the military, rejected imposing curbs on the media.

“We have never told any journalist or media owner what to say and what not to,” he told journalists. “We have always told them that Pakistan needs to unite, and we need to bring forward its strengths and success. I thank the media for their willing cooperation.”

The PFUJ, however, has called on the country’s judiciary to fulfill its constitutional obligations by protecting the freedom of expression and to dispense justice in cases involving violence, kidnapping, and the harassment of journalists.

The organization wants the parliament to probe their complaints and address the grievances of journalists.

“The parliament should raise its collective voice while remaining above [partisan] politics to protect the freedom of expression, which is under grave threat,” the PFUJ said.