Pakistan: Protect press freedoms, end threats to journalists
December 2, 2003
His Excellency General Pervez Musharraf
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Dear General Musharraf:
Human Rights Watch is concerned about continued concerted attempts by the Pakistani government to muzzle the press.
In the years since the 1999 coup, the Pakistani government has systematically violated the fundamental rights of journalists by threatening, harassing, and arbitrarily arresting many. Many have been detained without charge, mistreated and tortured, and otherwise denied their basic due process rights. The government has sought, in several cases successfully, to remove independent journalists from prominent publications. The arrest of editors and reporters from local and regional newspapers on charges of sedition is becoming increasingly commonplace.
While your government has consistently claimed that the press in Pakistan enjoys "unprecedented" freedom, independent monitoring groups such as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) have documented 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 October 2003, this ranking had slipped to 128.
Torture is routinely used in Pakistan to obtain confessions in criminal cases and against political opponents and journalists. Most acts of torture committed by civilian law enforcement agencies are aimed at producing a confession during the course of a criminal investigation. By contrast, acts of torture by military agencies primarily serve the purpose of "punishing" an errant politician, political activist or journalist. Torture by the military usually takes place after the victim has been abducted--the purpose is to frighten the victim into changing his political stance or loyalties or at the very least to stop him from being critical of the military authorities. The victim is often released on the understanding that if he fails to behave, another abduction and mistreatment will follow. In this manner, the victim can be kept in a state of fear often for several years. In journalism, this produces self-censorship.
We recently brought to your attention the case of Rasheed Azam, a journalist and political activist from Khuzdar in Balochistan province, who remains incarcerated (see letter of October 10, 2003). Azam, a reporter for the local newspapers Intikhab and Asap and a member of the organizing committee of the Balochistan National Party, has been in police custody since August 15, 2002. Azam communicated to Human Rights Watch through intermediaries that he has been taken three times to the Khuzdar military cantonment where he alleges he was abused and tortured, including by being beaten while he was hung upside down and through sleep deprivation.
Azam is being held on baseless claims that he committed sedition. According to the First Information Report of the local police, Azam was arrested in Quetta on the basis of a report "received from a sensitive department" that he had distributed a poster with a photograph of Pakistan army personnel beating a crowd of Baloch youth. The report goes on to state that such "sedition" against the army "is an offense of grave nature." However, the report fails to mention the date, time or place the alleged "crime" was committed, nor does it name the "sensitive department" in question or any eyewitnesses that saw the "offense" being perpetrated. And, of course if the photograph accurately depicted such an event, no crime would have been committed, and the distribution of such a photo would be protected under international law.
Rasheed Azam remains in jail after his bail application was rejected by the district judge. His colleagues have filed a bail application in the Balochistan High Court that awaits hearing.
Worryingly, Pakistan's crackdown on press freedom is now expanding to the mainstream Pakistani press. The case of Amir Mir, former editor of the Islamabad-based weekly newspaper Independent, and current Senior Assistant Editor of the monthly magazine Herald, is a startling example. Human Rights Watch investigations confirm that in June this year, the publishers of the Independent were coerced into forcing Mir to resign through threats of violence. Evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch suggests the involvement of military personnel from the intelligence agencies of the Pakistan Army (in particular the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)).
On November 20 at a reception for Pakistani newspaper editors you reportedly condemned the Herald for being "anti-army" and working against the "national interest". You are reported to have referred to several stories published in the magazine under Amir Mir's byline to illustrate your point. Some of the journalists present suggested that the government's complaints be channeled through the proper forum (in this case the Council of Pakistani Newspaper Editors (CPNE)). You reportedly dismissed the suggestion, arguing that the time had come for the Herald and Mir to be "dealt with". Your information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, reportedly concurred with your comments. Your general objections to coverage of specific issues was widely reported in the Pakistani press the following day.
Two days later, three unidentified persons set Amir Mir's car ablaze outside his house, endangering not just him and his family but also neighboring homes. Subsequently, Mir received a message purporting to be from the ISI claiming responsibility for the attack and warning that this was "just the beginning". The editor of the Herald, Aamer Ahmed Khan, has also been sent "messages" urging him to tailor the Herald's editorial policy to your government's needs.
Since the 1999 coup that brought you to power, the Herald 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 periodicals, well known for high standards of journalism and the integrity and honesty of its staff. It is the duty of the government of Pakistan to protect the lives and property of Herald staff, along with all other journalists in the country.
If you did not make these statements, Human Rights Watch urges you to publicly disassociate yourself and your government from them. If you did, we urge you to publicly retract them. In either case, it is imperative for you and your government to assure the safety of Amir Mir and take all necessary measures to protect him and other journalists.
Your 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 press freedom by releasing journalists arrested on trumped-up charges and to bring to an end the use of coercion, intimidation and torture in your dealings with the Pakistani print media.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to your reply.