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(New York) - Threats and censorship against the independent media, bias in state television, and a widespread ban on live broadcasting are limiting the public’s right to information as Pakistan goes to the polls, Human Rights Watch said today. Recent curbs on the media prohibit coverage of election rallies, live call-ins, live talk shows, live coverage of protests, or any live broadcasts that could show the government in a negative light, severely restricting the right to free expression ahead of Pakistan’s election on February 18, 2008.

On November 3, 2007, President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s constitution and declared emergency rule, curbing the media through two decrees that bar the publishing or broadcasting of “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 were also restrained from publishing any material 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 of anything deemed “false or baseless” by the regulatory authorities were also banned. All those provisions remain in force, even though the state of emergency was lifted on December 15.

“President Musharraf’s restrictions on the media undermine the chances that Pakistan will have free and fair elections this week,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “When President Musharraf lifted his state of emergency he left in place restrictions that prevent Pakistan’s journalists from working as they should, especially ahead of elections.”

The ban on a range of live news broadcasts was imposed by Musharraf in response to broadcasts by private television stations of protests by lawyers and political activists against government interference with the judiciary and opposition party activities.

On February 6, cable operators took the private Aaj TV off the cable network platform in Punjab province for almost 12 hours. Some operators carried a notice on the Aaj channel slot saying that Aaj TV had been taken off air on orders from PEMRA. The director of current affairs for Aaj TV, Nusrat Javeed, one of the six journalists “banned” from appearing on television, told Human Rights Watch that the move was triggered by his appearance in a talk show “Live with Talat,” a talk show that is no longer “live” but is now broadcast after being recorded and vetted by an internal censor committee to ensure that there are no violations of the PEMRA code. “The Aaj censor committee cleared the program and it went on air but after 19 minutes, at the first break, Aaj TV went blank,” said Javeed.

Many journalists, particularly in rural areas, told Human Rights Watch they have been repeatedly threatened by police and powerful local figures. They said that they have been prevented from covering news stories or events, such as protest rallies, had their equipment confiscated, and been warned that they face arrest if they record or air footage deemed undesirable by the government.

On January 25, while on a trip to London, Musharraf publicly threatened the Pakistani media when M. Ziauddin, London correspondent for Dawn, one of Pakistan’s most respected papers, asked him about the “escape” from Pakistani police custody a month earlier of alleged terrorist Rashid Rauf, who was facing extradition to the UK. Musharraf aggressively questioned Ziauddin’s patriotism and Pakistani credentials. Later that evening, talking about the incident, Musharraf urged 800 or so Pakistanis at a dinner to not allow “such individuals” to get away with “unpatriotic behavior.” Talking in idiomatic Urdu he told them, “I think it might be good if you even give them a punch or two.” The statement was broadcast on Pakistani television.

On November 6, Mir Shakilur Rehman, the owner of Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest private television network, emailed his senior staff informing them that he had received a “threatening telephone call last night” from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful and feared military intelligence agency. He added 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.”

Television journalists told Human Rights Watch that officials from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) interfere with editorial policy by calling newsrooms and directing the news line up. They also say they had to discontinue particular programming and take specified journalists deemed objectionable by the government off the air. Those who refused say they were subjected to threats, coercion, and attempted blackmail.

“Washington and London should be asking Musharraf why voters are being denied the information they need to make an informed decision,” Adams said. “Would American voters accept their television networks being told they couldn’t make live broadcasts during the current US election campaign?”

As part of its media crackdown the government, through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), imposed a new, “voluntary” code of conduct on the electronic media that formalized many of the restrictions put in place on November 3.

The government effectively coerced broadcasters into accepting a revised version of this “voluntary” code by threatening closure of channels. Geo TV, which was forced off the air for 77 days and incurred financial losses to the tune of “at least 25 million dollars,” as Rehman told Human Rights Watch, acceded to these demands. Geo TV was finally restored on the cable network on January 21, a day before Musharraf flew to Brussels for an eight-day European tour.

Television talk show host Naeemul Haq told Human Rights Watch that three topics “are off-limits and most likely to be censored – the state, the president, and the army.” According to Haq, journalists have been directed to refer to the head of state as “President Musharraf.” One of Haq’s talk shows at Indus TV in early December was not broadcast, he said, because the management said he “had referred to the president eight times as “Musharraf sahib [Mr. Musharraf].” The Indus TV management showed Haq the directive that called “for strict compliance in this matter.”

Restrictions on election coverage have been kept deliberately vague and may make it difficult if not impossible for the Pakistani media to report promptly on whether proper procedures are being followed in the voting process. Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, told Human Rights Watch that his organization feared that cable operators might be instructed by Pemra to take specific channels off air if they attempt to flout restrictions or simply in order to prevent dissemination of unofficial election results on polling day.

Charges and the threat of charges under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) are being used to intimidate journalists. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, cases under the act were registered against dozens of journalists in the southern province of Sindh. Some journalists working for regional newspapers, such as Abdul Ghafoor Memon of Khabroon, Jomo Jokhio of Awami Awaz, Sattar Umrani of Kavish, Ramzan Brohi of daily Jurrat, and Ahmed Kumbhar of Koshish, were held in police lock-ups for one to 14 days and then released. Others such as Younus Rajpar of ARY TV, Bishan Kumar, editor of the Sindhi-language monthly RC, Ghulam Mustafa Memon of Kavish, Ganib Chang of daily Ibrat, and 12 other journalists were charged under the ATA but granted bail. Charges remain on file against these journalists and they face the ongoing possibility of arrest and prosecution.

Journalists are particularly vulnerable in parts of the country experiencing conflict and insurgency, Human Rights Watch said. For example, on February 12, five journalists were injured, three of them seriously, in a bomb blast minutes before a news conference due to be addressed by Aslam Bizenjo, an independent candidate in Khuzdar, the second largest city in the western province of Balochistan. In such areas, the government heavily restricts movement of journalists. Attacks and restrictions on the media in Balochistan have been particularly detrimental to the conduct of a free vote because of the difficulty in monitoring elections in a large, sparsely populated territory.

“If allowed to operate unhindered, the Pakistani media, with its nationwide network of correspondents, would provide an effective check against potential election fraud,” said Adams. “The decision to muzzle the media is hard to understand from a government that constantly says it will have free and fair elections.”

Media monitoring carried out by Human Rights Watch indicates that the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV), which has a wider reach than private channels, is heavily biased towards the Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Q and its allies.

Human Rights Watch monitored PTV’s election coverage in three phases prior to elections: December 19-26, January 7-14, and February 7-10. During this time, the state media gave PML-Q and its allies broadcast time far in excess of its coverage of the opposition. In addition, PTV completely ignored the parties advocating a boycott of elections. Privately-owned channels, however, do report on the activities of these political parties, which have participated in previous elections. A disproportionate amount of air time was allotted to Musharraf supporters, particularly after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27.

Specific examples of recent bias include:

  • On February 11, PTV prominently reported a rally in Islamabad by an unknown group called Munaka, attended by “thousands” of Musharraf supporters. Reports suggest that this was a minor rally in which there were some 400 or so participants, who said they had been bused in from far-flung villages on the promise of visiting a religious shrine. However, two days earlier, on February 9, PTV ignored a rally of lawyers and citizens in Islamabad that police brutally dispersed with water cannons, tear gas and baton-charges, injuring and arresting several protestors.
  • While reporting on February 8 about the Scotland Yard report on Bhutto’s assassination, PTV did not carry her Pakistan People’s Party’s response to the report.
  • On February 7, PTV offered coverage for two-and-a-half minutes of the chehlum ritual to mark an end to 40 days of mourning for Bhutto. This was followed by a two-minute report on her estranged uncle Mumtaz Bhutto, a minor politician highly critical of the PPP.
  • On February 6, while reporting that Pakistan had issued visas to 500 election observers, PTV made no mention of the refusal to grant visas to the Commonwealth team.

“While the private media is banned from providing live coverage of key political events, the state media is biased in favor of President Musharraf’s ruling party,” said Adams.

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