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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Gen. Pervez Musharraf cites freeing Pakistan’s media as one of his proudest achievements, but under emergency rule his regime is stripping those liberties away for fear independent news reports will further fan opposition.
Authorities have blacked out TV networks and threatened broadcasters with jail time, but so far have spared the Internet and most newspapers.
Most people in Pakistan, where illiteracy is rife, get their news from TV or radio. Shortly before the government suspended the constitution and the freedoms it guarantees, cable operators pulled the plug on domestic and international news channels — including the BBC, CNN and Fox News.
Only state Pakistan Television, or PTV, which broadcast Musharraf’s solemn address to the nation late Saturday, remains free to air.
“He’s scared of the reaction of the Pakistani people to his illegitimate bid to continue his rule,” said Toby Mendel of Article 19, a London-based rights group that promotes freedom of expression. “Controlling the media, closing down the media is one way to at least mitigate that public backlash.”
The 20 private TV news channels that have sprung up since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup have proved a double-edged sword for Pakistani leader.
On the one hand, the expansion of the media has burnished his otherwise poor credentials on democratic reform and given people an alternative to staid PTV, a government mouthpiece.
But it has also provided running coverage, often live, of protests against him and of security forces’ failing efforts to contain Islamic militants destabilizing Pakistan.
The new power of Pakistan’s media became clear during the popular movement against military rule after Musharraf tried to oust the independent-minded chief justice in the spring. Images of tens of thousands of people greeting Judge Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as he toured the country were beamed directly into homes, perhaps the first time in Pakistan’s history that TV has shaken up its politics.
Musharraf “was stunned by the support there was for Supreme Court Justice Chaudhry,” Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
“I think he felt that he had those people in his back pocket, and when he saw those demonstrations, when he saw them being broadcast live … that was the greatest threat to his credibility.”
The Supreme Court subsequently reinstated Chaudhry in July, dealing Musharraf his bitterest defeat during his eight years in power.
So when the U.S.-allied leader declared the emergency, opening himself up to a new level of unpopularity, he also got tough on the media, accusing journalists of enhancing “this atmosphere of uncertainty.”
“It is the same media that got independence from me, from my government,” he said. “I have said several times to go towards positivism and stop negativism.”
He issued two ordinances — one for print media, the other for broadcast — including a ban on live coverage of “incidents of violence and conflict.” Also, TV anchors and hosts who criticize the president, military or government face up to three years in jail.
Pakistan’s electronic media regulators visited private news network Aaj TV and other stations the morning before the emergency was declared to take stock of operations and equipment — an action broadcasters believe laid the groundwork for the government to block them from Pakistani airwaves.
Some stations continue to broadcast internationally by satellite, but the satellite transmission of Aaj has been completely blocked, said Wamiq Zuberi, chief executive of the company that owns and runs the network. It was unclear why Aaj was singled out.
“They are firing a black hole kind of beam that obliterates everything,” Zuberi said. “We are effectively blacked out both inside and outside the country — the only news channel out of Pakistan that is completely blacked out.”
In practice, only a tiny portion of Pakistanis with access to a satellite dish are able to view any of the other popular channels, like Geo TV, ARY and Dawn News.
But it appears authorities are also moving to close even that outlet.
Huma Ali, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said staff of the state media regulator went to shops selling satellite dishes in Islamabad and Rawalpindi and ordered them to halt their sales. Officials for the regulator could not be reached for comment on that allegation.
One blogger, whose Metroblogging Islamabad site appeared to be unaffected by the crackdown, complained that “without any News Channel on your television set (it) reminds me of early 90s and late 80s, days before NTM,” Pakistan’s first private TV network.
Among the channels still on the air were HBO, BBC Food and Bollywood video programs, about which the blogger wrote: “How much of movies, songs, cooking programs can you see when News in town is HOT?”
But few people have access to the Internet in this largely rural country.
Broadcast media have borne the brunt of the crackdown here, but newspapers, which have delivered blistering critiques on Musharraf’s emergency, have not gone unpunished.
Police raided the Karachi printing press of the country’s largest media group, blocking publication of its Urdu-language evening newspaper, Awam, or People, said Mahmood Sham, editor of the Jang Group. Authorities apparently feared the paper was going to run a special edition based on unfounded rumors circulating Monday that Musharraf was being put under house arrest by the vice-chief of the army.
But journalists remain defiant.
Hundreds gathered at press clubs in Islamabad and Lahore on Monday to protest the new media laws. Police attempted to raid the Karachi club where civil society activists were meeting, but journalists shut the gates. Police beat several journalists with batons.
In Rawalpindi, police prohibited photographers and cameramen from taking images outside the High Court near Musharraf’s army office. In the capital, an AP reporter who tried to approach the Supreme Court was told by a plainclothes policeman to leave the area or face arrest.
Pakistan is no stranger to government efforts to muzzle the press. More than half of its 60-year history has been under military rule. During the rule of former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, newspaper columns were often left blank where the state censor had excised an article.
But the explosion of media over the past eight years means this time it will be much more difficult for authorities to muzzle journalists.
“This time it will be extremely difficult for even a military ruler to impose those kinds of restrictions and get away with it,” said Zaffar Abbas, Islamabad editor for the respected Dawn newspaper.
“We believe what we are writing and what we are publishing is well within the norms of decency and responsible journalism,” he said. “We will continue to do that, unless we are forcibly stopped.”
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