IV. Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

Tight controls on freedom of expression have been a hallmark of the Pakistani government’s policy in Azad Kashmir. This control is highly selective. Militant organizations have had free rein—particularly between 1991 and 2001—to propagate their views and disseminate literature.  However, those supportive of independence for a united Kashmir, or otherwise critical of the Pakistani government, have faced continual repression.

Loyalty oath

No person in Azad Kashmir can be appointed to any government job, including the judiciary, unless he or she expresses loyalty to the concept of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan.  The oath of office for the president, prime minister, speaker, member of the legislative assembly or the Azad Kashmir Council also incorporates the following statement: “I will remain loyal to the country and the cause of accession of the state of Jammu & Kashmir to Pakistan.”49 (The consequences of not taking the oath for persons seeking political office are discussed below, in Chapter V.)

Print media and publishing

The Pakistani government has long limited dissemination of news in Azad Kashmir.  There is no locally-based news agency. Azad Kashmir only has one daily newspaper and so people largely rely on local editions of Pakistani newspapers for news and information. The laws governing publications provide a partial explanation for this barren information landscape: in order to publish within the territory, newspapers and periodicals need to be granted permission by the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad. These bodies are unlikely to grant permission to any proposed publication likely to be sympathetic to any discourse on Kashmir and its affairs other than that sanctioned by the Pakistani government.  In any case, the publisher would have to sign the declaration of support to accession to Pakistan mentioned above. Technically, the same rules apply to the publication of books.

Human Rights Watch spoke extensively to working journalists and writers in the major towns of Azad Kashmir. Members of the press complained of the intrusive and coercive policies of the Azad Kashmir government but particularly of the ISI and the Pakistani military. Almost every journalist interviewed described incidents of coercion, intimidation, threats and occasional violence against the media by the military, its intelligence agencies, and militant groups.

Consequently, self-censorship has been as endemic as coercion.  It is indicative of the climate of fear that pervades Azad Kashmir that while journalists were forthcoming in describing incidents off-the-record, virtually all interviewed by Human Rights Watch requested not to be quoted, even anonymously. Their rationale was that Azad Kashmir was a relatively small territory and they would be easily identifiable through the specifics of the incident described. One journalist explained his reasons to Human Rights Watch in these words: 

You will go away. We have to live and work here. Our families live here. The ISI is very powerful. It is also very unforgiving. The officer who presided over my beating is still serving. Even if he was not, he would inform his successor of the “disciplinary action” taken against me and to keep an eye on me. If they don’t want to be blamed themselves, they will instruct one of the jihadi groups to teach me a lesson. I know freedom of expression is important but not important enough to die for. At least not to me. Sometimes they just summon you for no reason at all. On some flimsy excuse. Someone with a similar name writes something unrelated to Kashmir in some part of Pakistan but the army or the jihadis decide it is you. They also force you to create and kill news according to what suits them. Things are bad. You have heard how bad from many of us. Just don’t mention my name, that’s all.50      

Waheed Kiyani, a local journalist working for the Reuters news agency, was arbitrarily arrested by the ISI on July 10, 2003, as he was returning from the city of Rawalakot after covering a political meeting. For security reasons, Kiyani was unwilling to talk to Human Rights Watch. However, Human Rights Watch interviewed others including the organizers of the meeting who described what happened. Arif Shahid, chairman of the All Parties Nationalist Alliance (APNA, a conglomerate of nationalist Kashmiri parties) and JKLF secretary general, told us:

On July 10, 2003, we held a conference titled ‘Kashmir Unity Conference’ at Khaigala where AJK and Gilgit Baltistan leadership was present. About three hundred delegates attended. We offered a form to all delegates. The form gave the options of independence, joining Pakistan or joining India. The answer was two for India, two for Pakistan and the rest for independence.

Only one international journalist was present—the Reuters correspondent Waheed Kiyani. As soon as he stepped out [of the meeting], he was followed by the ISI and he was arrested at Rawalakot. He told me that they kept him blindfolded and his camera/photos were confiscated and he was taken to the ISI headquarters and torture cell near Rawalakot.

We went to Rawalpindi in Pakistan and informed Reuters. Kiyani was released two days later, on July 12. On the same day we attended a seminar in Muzaffarabad. Kiyani covered the event. He was called on stage by General Anwar, the AJK President who told him in full public view to ‘forget it and be grateful you are alive,’ and ‘offer thanksgiving prayers.’

In this atmosphere of shameless open coercion, it is no surprise that Kiyani wants to put the incident behind him and is hesitant to talk about it now. This is the reality of press freedoms in AJK. And of course, the rest house where the delegates of the conference were staying was also raided on the same day, July 10. The owner ran away from the scene. The rest house was empty as we had finished and left according to schedule. 51

The Azad Kashmir government regularly bans books that it considers to be prejudicial to the “ideology of the state’s accession to Pakistan.”52 This includes all books that propagate or discuss the Kashmiri nationalist discourse with its emphasis on independence for a united Kashmir. Arif Shahid, quoted above, is himself the author of four books banned by the authorities.    

Muhammad Saeed Asad, a self-described Kashmiri nationalist, is the author of numerous books on Kashmiri affairs, and is employed as a social welfare officer in the Azad Kashmir Ministry of Social Welfare and Women’s Development when he is not under suspension for writing books to which the government objects. In 2002, he was suspended for writing a book on the Mangla Dam (see above) that questioned Pakistan’s right to water sources originating in Kashmir. Pakistan has banned three books written by Saeed Asad for being “anti-state and an attempt to promote nationalist feelings amongst Kashmiris.”53  These include Shaur-e-Farda, banned in 1996, which comprises letters written by Maqbool Butt to his friends and relatives over a span of two decades (Maqbool Butt, founder of the JKLF, is a central figure in the Kashmiri nationalist movement.)54  Saeed Asad’s book on the Mangla Dam controversy was banned on November 21, 2002, and a book on the Northern Areas (in the grip of unrest due to lack of rights and, as noted above, claimed by Kashmiri nationalists and India as part of Kashmir),55 was banned in June 2004. He told Human Rights Watch:

Please use my name. We are ready to struggle, I am a man of words and so I will remain in the public domain.  My books have been banned because they talk of Kashmiri rights and Kashmiri nationalism. I am a Kashmiri nationalist and why should I not be allowed to call myself such?

I was suspended from my government job for writing on the Mangla Dam issue. The ISI called me upon publication of the book. It was a major in the ISI. He verified that I had compiled the book and had not been forced into writing it.

The book represented the views of Kashmiris on Mangla and indicates that Pakistan was exploiting Kashmir for its own gains. Two weeks after publication, I had a three-hour-long meeting with Pakistan’s Military Intelligence. They told me that this was a sensitive matter and I should not have written about it. ‘The public does not know why you have brought this into the public domain,’ the officer said. I replied that people had a right to know what Mangla Dam was and who derived advantages from it. It was my national duty, as a Kashmiri, to bring this out. ‘This is precisely your crime,’ the officer said. The meeting had majors from GHQ Rawalpindi and officers from Military Intelligence. ‘You should avoid writing such books. We are placing you under surveillance’ one said. But, I made it clear to them that I would keep on writing and they could keep on banning my work.

They keep giving me trouble by stopping pay raises, suspending me from the job periodically and posting me from district to district in order to make life difficult. But, I am determined to keep on writing and to keep on working.

The government of Pakistan is willing to fund books and propaganda to the tune of millions of dollars to propagate its own views and stance. Why can’t we exert our individual efforts to disagree? They brook no dissent and want total and complete control. The Pakistan government just wants to suppress the Kashmiris. I have been repeatedly offered advancement if I support Pakistan. Endless youth in Kashmir who have masters and professional degrees are unemployed because the government knows they are pro-independence.

This is how the Pakistanis, our so-called friends, treat us. We are at war with India so they persecute us. We are not at war here but they persecute us anyway. Would you like to have such friends? Would you want to live under such rule? No you would not. So why should we?56

The October 8, 2005 earthquake resulted in a considerable weakening of the Pakistani government’s ability to curb freedom of expression and information in the territory. The influx of international and Pakistani media into the territory in the aftermath of the earthquake was unprecedented. However, for freedom of expression to take root in Azad Kashmir, the external media presence must be systematized into permanent structures such as news bureaus and regional offices.

Electronic media and telecommunications

As with the print media, prior to the earthquake the only radio station allowed to operate in the territory was the Azad Kashmir Radio, a subsidiary of the state-controlled Radio Pakistan. Typically, state-run radio and television news programs present news according to priorities of state protocol rather than newsworthiness—that is, a news bulletin will begin with the engagements and observations of the president of Pakistan and make its way down the official pecking order to the local level. The influx of and consequent competition from satellite channels has, as yet, not resulted in a change in the news culture of state-controlled media.  Subsequent to the earthquake, the government allowed a private FM radio station to broadcast in the territory as long as the broadcast is limited to entertainment.

(In November 2005, Pakistan’s government-run electronic media regulatory authority, PEMRA, stopped three local (Pakistani) partners of the BBC from broadcasting two daily thirty-minute “earthquake specials” produced by the BBC’s Urdu service. PEMRA officials, accompanied by dozens of armed policemen, seized equipment from one of the local partners’ Karachi offices and ordered two satellite television partners to stop running news content from the BBC. Pakistan’s information minister declined to comment on the incident when approached by the BBC. Though the “earthquake specials” resumed after an outcry by international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the government of Pakistan appears unwilling to tolerate critical reporting of events in Azad Kashmir not just in the territory, but across Pakistan.57

Before the earthquake, telephone landlines were limited and strictly monitored in Azad Kashmir and only a limited mobile telephone service was operational. All telecommunications stations were controlled by the Special Communications Organization (SCO), which is a functional unit of the Pakistani army. Subsequent to the earthquake, the Pakistani government allowed private Pakistani mobile phone companies to operate in Azad Kashmir—but only after it was pointed out that the loss of life could have been lessened and the rescue effort made easier, particularly in the major cities, had victims buried under rubble been able to use mobile phones as they did in Islamabad and quake-affected areas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.58 

Public protest

Official repression of freedom of expression is not limited to controls and censorship specific to Kashmiri nationalists and journalists. Pakistani police used lahtis (canes) and rifle butts to break up a peaceful demonstration in Muzaffarabad on November 11, 2005, by approximately two hundred earthquake survivors protesting eviction from their makeshift camp. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police arrived early at the Jalalabad Garden camp that day and told the quake victims that they had to leave by sunset. Several protestors, including children, were injured as a result of police efforts to break up the demonstration. A Muzaffarabad journalist told Human Rights Watch that when he asked a senior administration official to order the police to stop the violence, the official responded, “What else do you expect the police to do? We can hardly tolerate this sort of behavior from these people. If they don’t behave they will get beaten of course.”

49 The oath is based on Article7(2) of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974, and in addition to holding political office or being appointed to a government job, the submission of a signed declaration to the same effect is required in order to publish books or periodicals.

50 Human Rights Watch interview with local journalist, Azad Kashmir, July 29, 2005. 

51 Human Rights Watch interview with Arif Shahid, Rawalakot, July 28, 2005. Human Rights Watch interview with Kamila Hyat, Joint Director, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Lahore, September 14, 2006.

52 Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act 1974, art. 7(2).

53The letter of suspension to Saeed Asad is on file with Human Rights Watch.

54 Maqbool Butt is considered a hero by Kashmiri nationalists and the founder of the movement for an independent Kashmir. He was disliked almost equally by India and Pakistan, and viewed as a terrorist by the former and a double agent by the latter. He was hanged on February 11, 1984, in Tihar Jail, New Delhi, age forty-five, and buried there.

55 The complex history of the Northern Areas (NA) is intricately linked to the Kashmir dispute. Since 1947-48, the NA have been administered by Pakistan although they are not legally part of it as they find no mention in the constitution of Pakistan and are neither a province of Pakistan nor an autonomous territory having a constitutional status of its own like Azad Kashmir. Though Pakistan blames the constitutional limbo the NA is in on its unresolved dispute with India over Kashmir, it has chosen to separate the territory from Azad Kashmir. Both Kashmiri nationalists and India disagree with Pakistani policy in this regard. 

56 Human Rights Watch interview with Saeed Asad, Rawalakot. July 30, 2005.

57 “Pakistan: Donors Need Accountability on Human Rights,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 16, 2005, [online]

58 “President’s press conference in Muzaffarabad,” President of Pakistan press room, October 18, 2005, [online] (retrieved August 24, 2006).