Musharraf’s respect for press freedom
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
many are skeptical about Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s
commitment to democracy, but 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 told 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,
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 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 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 imposes 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
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.
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.
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 are office-bearers of these organizations nor takes up posts once on the Council.
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.
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?
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."
Press, Newspapers and News Agencies Registration Ordinance-2002 repeals
the much-reviled Press and Publication Ordinance-1963 and replace the
Registration of Printing Press Ordinance-1988/97 that authorized the
government to take stringent action against any newspaper.
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 issued a warning for any alleged irresponsible
reporting rather than ordering a closure or canceling of its
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
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
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.
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.
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
rules in the world.