Censorship, Literacy Rates, Restrictions
Musharraf’s respect for press freedom
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Although many are skeptical about Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s commitment to democracy, even they agree the press has had more freedom under him than probably ever before. Even so, the press there walks a careful line through a minefield of military, political and religious influences.
Traditionally, the Pakistani print media has had more space to breathe than the electronic media, no matter who is in power. That is largely because it is less effective. Of a country of over 140 million people, only some 2 million read newspapers, thanks to shockingly low literacy rates, and English language papers account for only a fraction of those readers.
M Ziauddin is the Islamabad editor of The Dawn, a sober and respected English language newspaper that was actually founded before Pakistan itself. Ziauddin said in an interview that this newspaper survived decades of military dictatorships basically because it shamelessly toed the government line. Ziauddin recalls printing verbatim government press releases and letting the censor board remove entire pages. The Dawn can write whatever it wants these days, but that is because hardly anybody reads it. Even if the Pakistani government largely leaves the English language newspapers alone, individual journalists are not always immune. Najam Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based English newspaper The Daily Times, was thrown in jail under two earlier Pakistani regimes for his work as a journalist. He lived through the era when journalists were actually flogged as punishment for penning critical views. Najam founded his first paper, The Weekly Friday Times, after Pakistan’s fearsome Islamist former president, Mohammed Ziaul Haq died, in 1988. Najam says that under Musharraf’s government, the press is better off in many ways. Everywhere he goes, he flaunts this to the Western World—“The press is free.” And to a large extent, that is the case. Unless there was extreme provocation of a personal nature against any of the generals, Musharraf basically let the press be.
Musharraf has tread a very careful and balanced line—selected repression, targeted, but without leaving any fingerprints. But by and large, the press is free. The targeted repression Najam says he talks about has been well-documented by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. They say there have been dozens of attacks on journalists just in the last year. Last January, a journalist who wrote a book condemning religious fundamentalism was killed. In the recent past another journalist who criticized the government sports board was badly beaten. While Najam agrees that democracy is necessary for media to thrive, he thinks it often leads to an aligning of the press with government and business interests—what he calls a democratic leveling. This is what’s happened in both the U.S. and the Indian media, he says, because when you have an established democracy, reporters tend to fall into line based on consensus. Therefore, according to his analysis, there is an up side to recent decades of media repression in Pakistan.
Pakistani newspapers are very lively, both in English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Irshad Haqqani is a senior editor and columnist at the Daily Jang, the largest Urdu newspaper in Pakistan. He criticizes the Musharraf government regularly in print. Although there are invisible pressures, there are behind-the-scenes moves, but by and large even if you criticize Musharraf personally, you don’t think that you will be prosecuted or a case will be registered against you. But I can’t say that everything is hunky-dory; everything is fine. They have brought in new defamation laws, which are more stringent than the ones that are already there on the statute book. New laws approved by the Musharraf government impose new restrictions on journalists accused of defaming or slandering politicians. Critics point out that the law against blasphemy is used to settle personal scores and often targets journalists.
In July, a Pakistani high court sentenced Munawar Mohsin, a junior newspaper editor, to life in prison for allegedly defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. It is a capital offense in this Islamic republic. President Musharraf promised he would reform that law when he came to office. Pressure from Islamic fundamentalists made him change his mind. But even so, Asma Jehangir, Pakistan’s best-known human rights lawyer, sees some murmurings of hope for a free press.
The Ministry of Information says this law has incorporated an Ethical Code of Practice to promote healthy and responsible trends in journalism and gives legal cover to the constitution of a Press Council aimed at safeguarding freedom of the press and sets up an inquiry commission to take up public complaints against newspapers or journalists that violate the Code.
It is mentioned that the Council comprise 17 members, with the chairman nominated by the president, who is either a retired judge of a high court or eligible of becoming a judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Council includes four members each from All Pakistan Newspaper Society [APNS] and Council of Pakistani Newspaper Editors [CPNE]. Two represent the organizations of working journalists but they must neither be office-bearers of these organizations nor take up posts once on the Council.
One member each would are nominated by the leader of the house and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, the National Commission on the Status of Women, the Pakistan Bar Council, the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry and a prominent human rights organization that is at least 10 years old.
Information ministry officials say this law aims to safeguard the freedom of the press, set professional standards for newspapers and news agencies, and make them accountable with regard to the feelings, fears and issues of the Pakistani society.
It purports to help newspapers and news agencies protect their independence and monitor any incidents of use of force in blocking any news item in public interest or instances of intimidation in getting a certain news item published.
The law is to streamline and soften the procedure of issuing declarations for any new publication. It introduces a system of checks and balances to rationalize the discretionary powers of the relevant authorities authenticating or canceling the declarations.
How will these two new laws affect the freedom of expression in Pakistan?
On the face of it they seem to reduce official powers to curb the freedom of expression, but deftly put the onus of guarding this freedom on the press itself through the proposed Code of Conduct. As one Ministry of Information official put it: “The new laws quash government powers to ban a publication but provide for measures to ensure that the press follow a stipulated code of ethics and behave responsibly.”
The Press, Newspapers and News Agencies Registration Ordinance-2002 repeals the much-reviled Press and Publication Ordinance-1963 and replaces the Registration of Printing Press Ordinance-1988/97 that authorized the government to take stringent action against any newspaper.
While the new ordinance reportedly contains minor penalties to check violations by newspapers, it has no provision that equips the government to ban any publication. The penalties, reportedly, are only of a minor nature and do not condone the traditional coercive tactics to tame the media. For example, a publication could now be asked to issue a clarification or be issued a warning for any alleged irresponsible reporting rather than ordering a closure or canceling of its declaration.
The other new law, the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance-2002, seems to be an attempt to redress the complaints of newspaper readers against anything published in them. The code of ethics it will encapsulate is sure to make the media more cautious and responsible but without suggesting any punitive action—akin to acting as a “moral check” on the media.
Since the harsh fact of the government might in Pakistan is stranger than any fiction that a newspaper can possibly publish, it remains to be seen whether the passed two new laws will actually protect the freedom of expression or instead be a more liberal way of being conservative.
On March 1, 2002, the government promulgated the much-anticipated Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance 2002 to regulate and develop broadcast media in the country. PEMRA aims at improving the standards of information, education and entertainment as well as enlarging the choice available to the people in a variety of programs.
“Whereas it is expedient to provide for the development of broadcast media in order to enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan in the media for news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art, culture, science, technology, economic development, social sector concerns, music, sports, drama and other subjects of public and national interest,” the Ordinance says.
Despite the fact that General Pervez Musharraf has many of his agendas which are not liked by the people of Pakistan as well the international community, as well, his recent steps in settling a power-sharing agreement with ousted former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, it is observed with interest that the military ruler in Islamabad does not intend to repress or suppress press freedom like many other military rulers in the world.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor & publisher of The Weekly Blitz. He is a journalist, columnist, author and Peace activist. He is the recipient of PEN USA Freedom to Write Award 2005, Recipient of American Jewish Committee Moral Courage Award 2006.