A legacy of free media is risked by Musharraf

A man tried to tune televisions yesterday in Karachi, Pakistan, after government authorities cut off cable service. A man tried to tune televisions yesterday in Karachi, Pakistan, after government authorities cut off cable service. (Kamal Khan/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Alisa Tang
Associated Press / November 6, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President General Pervez Musharraf cites freeing Pakistan's media as one of his proudest achievements, but under emergency rule his regime is stripping those liberties, fearful independent news reports would further fan opposition.

Authorities have blacked out television networks and threatened broadcasters with jail time, but 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 Pakistan's leader.

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," said Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"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 eight years in power.

So when the US-allied leader declared the emergency, opening himself 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.

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 sales.

Broadcast media have borne the brunt of the crackdown, 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.

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