(New York) - The Dubai government should allow Geo Television and ARY Digital, which broadcast from Dubai and function as Pakistan’s most independent and respected television stations, to resume operations immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.
On November 17, the Dubai authorities summarily gave Geo Television and ARY Digital two hours to halt broadcasting after persistent pressure from the Pakistani government. Both channels, which are registered in Dubai, have been off the air in Pakistan since November 3, when cable operators were instructed to end transmissions. But the channels had continued to broadcast on satellite and the internet until they were shut down on Saturday by the Dubai government.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the show of support for media freedom by the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, when she visited the Geo offices in Karachi on Monday. The organization urged the Bush administration to also press the authorities in Dubai to reverse their decision to close Geo and ARY Digital.
“Musharraf isn’t content with muzzling critical media coverage of his repression within Pakistan – now he is pressuring Dubai to abet his crackdown on independent reporting,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The US should publicly call on its close ally in Dubai to lift the bans. Dubai’s government should refuse to be an accomplice to Musharraf’s assault on free speech.”
After Pakistan’s leader, General Pervez Musharraf, announced a state of emergency on November 3 and issued a draconian censorship decree on the media, private Pakistani television networks were instructed to sign a new 14-page code of conduct by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). While many channels have signed and agreed to discontinue specific programming deemed objectionable by the government, Geo TV and ARY Digital have refused to accept the new rules.
Human Rights Watch urged the Dubai authorities to recognize the damage that the ban is causing to the emirate’s reputation as a neutral commercial and media center in the region. The authorities should unconditionally and immediately reverse the decision to ban transmission by Geo and ARY Digital, Human Rights Watch said.
“By making itself a party to Musharraf’s repression of the Pakistani media, Dubai is damaging its own international reputation,” said Adams. “This move sets an appalling precedent and raises serious questions about Dubai’s viability as a regional hub for the international media.”
Musharraf introduced curbs on the media through two decrees barring the media from printing or broadcasting “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organ of the state.” The print and electronic media have also been restrained from publishing any material that is likely to “jeopardize or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order.” Television discussions on anything which is deemed to be “false or baseless” by the regulatory authorities have also been banned.
Journalists have been repeatedly threatened and prevented from covering events following suspension of the constitution, had their equipment confiscated, and been warned that if they record footage of arrests or police raids, they themselves will face arrest and incarceration.
On November 15, Mir Shakilur Rehman, the owner of Geo TV, emailed his senior staff informing them that he had received a “threatening telephone call last night” from the Pakistani military’s feared Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), and adding that he had been “taken” to an ISI safe house in Islamabad where he was given a warning by an ISI operative who told him, “I would like to advise you to please follow the laws especially the newly promulgated law.”
Rehman also forwarded to staff an email from a person identifying himself as Sabir saying, “Pakistan Army is the backbone of Pakistan, don't try to damage it, if u do, u and your family who have looted billions would be hunted down like rats. It will just take a few hundred people to smash ur studios, offices, vans.”
Geo, part of Pakistan’s largest news group, has sustained severe financial losses as a result of the ban on its transmission. The government has withdrawn advertising from both the Urdu-language print affiliate, Daily Jang, Pakistan’s largest-circulation newspaper, and its sister publication in English, The News, as punishment. 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 equitably distributed amongst publications on the basis of such criteria as newspaper circulation, language, geographic reach and target audience.
The crackdown is not limited to Pakistani journalists. On November 10, Pakistan expelled three journalists working for the UK’s Telegraph group. Isambard Wilkinson, Colin Freeman and Damien McElroy were ordered out because Pakistani authorities found a November 9 editorial in The Daily Telegraph offensive.
Human Rights Watch called upon the international community to take concrete steps to prevent Pakistan’s descent into a police state.
“The world should not stand by as Musharraf engages in the systematic destruction of free speech, first inside Pakistan and now outside the country as well,” said Adams.