April 28, 2007

General Pervez Musharraf
President
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Aiwan-e-Sadr
Constitution Avenue
Islamabad, Pakistan

Dear General Musharraf,

Human Rights Watch is concerned about concerted and increasing attempts by the Pakistani government to muzzle the media. The attempt to silence Aaj TV, the violent attack on Geo TV, improper pressures on Dawn, and torture and other physical attacks on journalists in many parts of the country are only some of the well-known examples of attacks on the media. Independent monitoring groups such as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) continue to document the steady erosion of press freedom under your government. In October 2002, Pakistan was ranked at 119 out of 166 countries in the RSF Press Freedom Index. By December 2006, this ranking had slipped to 157.

Though your government has consistently claimed that the media in Pakistan enjoys "unprecedented" freedom, this remains limited to publications and television channels that support your government and you personally. English language media, which is much more visible to diplomats and the rest of the world, retains more freedom to criticize the government than Urdu media. Similarly, broadcast media is given less leeway than print media because of the former’s greater outreach. While the opinion pages of English language newspapers are full of critical comment, journalists and editors are under substantial pressure not to publish factual stories that expose government or, in particular, military misdeeds. Threatening calls from intelligence, military or unknown sources are a regular hazard for many journalists. These have increased since your March 9 decision to undermine judicial independence by arbitrarily dismissing the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Pakistani print and electronic media have faced immense pressure, coercion and even violent attacks by your government in order to tone down coverage of anti-government protests and the peaceful campaign to restore the chief justice.

In the years since the 1999 coup, the Pakistani government has systematically violated the fundamental rights of members of the press corps through threats, harassment, and arbitrary arrests and “disappearances.” Many have been detained without charge, mistreated and tortured, and otherwise denied basic due process rights. The government has sought to, and frequently succeeded in, forcing publications to engage in self-censorship.

We call on you to bring all such acts by the government and its agents to an end.

Physical Attacks on Pakistani Journalists

A number of journalists have gone missing, and some have been killed, after covering stories considered sensitive by the military. The security forces have been implicated in all of the following examples:

  • In June 2006, journalist Hayatullah Khan was found dead six months after he was abducted in Waziristan. Evidence suggested the involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
  • Military personnel were involved in the arrest in April 2006 of Munir Mengal, a Baluch journalist, in Karachi. He was finally allowed a visit by his family in December. He remains in military detention.
  • On June 22, 2006 Mukesh Rupeta and Sanjay Kumer were finally produced in court and charged after being held illegally by the Pakistani intelligence services and repeatedly tortured for over three months for filming a Pakistani air force base used by the US army.
  • During four months of illegal detention by the military ending on October 27, 2006 Mehruddin Mari, a Sindhi-language journalist, was tortured through electric shocks and sleep deprivation.
  • Dilawar Khan, a BBC correspondent was kidnapped and threatened for several hours in November 2006 by ISI agents.

In none of these cases has there been any attempt at prosecuting the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch has also received information of verbal threats to scores of print and television journalists by intelligence personnel, government officials, and persons believed to be acting on the government’s behalf. Many of those threatened have refused to be named for fear of reprisal.  

Attempt to silence Aaj TV

On April 22, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a show-cause notice to the privately owned Aaj TV accusing it of inciting violence by covering proceedings of the Chief Justice’s case being heard before the Supreme Judicial Council. PEMRA threatened to shut down the channel within three days in the absence of a satisfactory explanation. On April 25, the Sindh High Court temporarily suspended PEMRA’s notice.

PEMRA’s move followed the airing of programming deemed critical of your government’s actions in the controversy surrounding the illegal suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Aaj TV has told Human Rights Watch that it is not in violation of any regulations and that the order is an excuse to shut down Aaj TV as punishment for its critical coverage of recent events.

Human Rights Watch urges your government to withdraw the notice issued to Aaj TV and end the use of PEMRA as an instrument of censorship and coercion.

Violent Attack on Geo TV

It was commendable that you personally and speedily apologized for the March 16 attack by riot police on the Islamabad offices of the Jang Group, which houses the newspapers Jang and The News and Geo TV. The police broke into the offices, damaged property and terrorized journalists while they attempted to cover an anti-government protest underway outside. Human Rights Watch urges your government to investigate and prosecute the officials who ordered the police to attack the television station.

Curbs on Broadcasting

Private television channels in Pakistan have faced increasing levels of governmental intrusion and harassment in the last year in particular. In November, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned cable and satellite operators from airing Sindh TV though the ban was rescinded a fortnight later. In September 2006, police in Punjab province instructed cable operators to take ARY TV off the air after it broadcast footage of police officers beating three journalists. In August 2006, PEMRA refused to renew the license of Mast FM 103, a private radio station because of objections to its programming, in particular a weekly BBC-made “Earthquake Special” that was critical of your government’s handling of the October 2005 earthquake. The station lost a legal battle for the right to air Urdu programming from the BBC World Service in November the same year.

Improper Pressure on Dawn

Since the 1999 coup that brought you to power, Dawn has highlighted the suppression of civil liberties and the progressive undermining of civilian institutions in Pakistan. It is one of Pakistan's most highly regarded newspapers, well known for high standards of journalism and the integrity and honesty of its staff.

The federal and Sindh provincial governments have attempted to pressure the newspaper Dawn into supporting its view on events in Baluchistan, the volatile tribal border areas with Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, “disappearances,” covert support to militancy in Kashmir and human rights issues by withholding government advertising, a revenue source on which Pakistani papers rely heavily. Since December 2006, Dawn has seen its designated share of government advertising slashed by two-thirds. The government is the largest advertiser in the country and under well established procedures agreed between journalist bodies and Pakistan’s Ministry of Information advertising is supposed to be distributed fairly on the basis of such criteria as newspaper circulation, language, geographic reach and target audience. In response to a petition filed by Dawn, the Sindh provincial government agreed to abide by the above criteria and the Sindh High Court in its order cautioned the government that a failure to do so may “entail consequences of contempt proceedings.” These proceedings are now underway.

The government has also withheld a television broadcast license from the Dawn Group, even though the application was approved by PEMRA. By withholding advertising and arbitrarily preventing the issuance of licenses, the government is making it clear to the Group that it wants an end to coverage it deems negative.

According to Dawn, senior officials in the Ministry of Information have made clear to its Chief Executive that government advertising has been curtailed to rein in critical reporting.

Right to Seek Information

Human Rights Watch reminds you that journalists have the right to freedom of movement to seek information. We urge your government to act in accordance with the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information—standards drafted by international law and global rights experts in 1995 and endorsed by the United Nations special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Johannesburg principle 19 provides that “governments may not prevent journalists from entering areas where there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of human rights or humanitarian law are being, or have been, committed. Governments may not exclude journalists or representatives of such organizations from areas that are experiencing violence or armed conflict except where their presence would pose a clear risk to the safety of others.”

Your government has consistently violated this principle in Balochistan, Pakistan’s tribal areas and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Your government’s failure to allow freedom of expression as required by international law has become yet another symbol of the lack of rule of law in Pakistan, which is fundamental to the promotion and protection of human rights. We urge you to demonstrate a commitment to genuine media freedom by bringing to an end the use of coercion, intimidation, kidnapping and torture, or the threat of it, in government dealings with the print and electronic media in Pakistan.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia Division

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