Pakistani media feels the heat of judge controversy
Apr 25, 2007 - 9:14:57 AM

Islamabad, April 25 - As Pakistan weathers its seventh week of crisis over the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, state authorities are tightening the screws on local media during their tenacious coverage of the highly politicised case.

Licences for new media projects have been suspiciously withheld, lucrative government advertising contracts pulled in the wake of critical reporting, TV channels taken off air and premises vandalised by police.

International media organisations joined in fierce condemnation of a rampage March 16 by officers with sticks and tear gas inside the Islamabad bureau of the independent Geo television station.

The raid came as the channel aired live footage of police using rubber bullets and tear gas on activists to stop them from joining protesting lawyers outside the Supreme Court.

'This is a sabotage of what we stand for,' President Pervez Musharraf said of the police actions in a live interview broadcast the next day.

Condemning the 'highly regretful' occurrence, the military leader named 'freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of media' as the main strengths of his reforms.

At least 14 policemen were promptly suspended after the attack on Geo, since when some media toned down their coverage while others have intensified it.

The private Aaj channel recently devoted successive hours of airtime to a trip by Chaudhry to the northern city of Peshawar, presenting images of him being showered with rose petals by a euphoric crowd.

Last Sunday, Aaj, which together with Geo was also taken off air during the March 16 events, received a notice from state media regulators for alleged violation of directives about covering the judicial crisis. It was also told that it had not fulfilled procedural requirements for airing programmes. The channel denied both charges.

'We take the notice as totally unjustified,' said Aaj managing director Arshad Zuberi.

Media workers across the country also demonstrated and condemned government attempts to gag the press, which can take various forms.

Pulling advertising has long been a tool of pressure by successive governments in the country, according to Sohail Iqbal, editor of Pakistan's private Online news agency.

The agency is one news provider to feel this financial pinch since Musharraf suspended Chaudhry on March 9 for abuse of office, sparking nationwide protests by lawyers and opposition parties.

'The pressure has increased in the past couple of months during the judicial crisis,' the editor said. 'They are trying to advise the media to underplay such stories and highlight the government point of view.'

Self-censorship is widely practised as a result, Iqbal said.

The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres - cited the actions against Geo and restrictions on advertising as a taste of things likely to come as the president seeks another term in polls due this year or in early 2008.

'We fear that, in this presidential election year, the independence of the media is going to be under attack from the government,' the organisation said.

But before the eruption of the Chaudhry affair, a succession of sinister and tragic events overshadowed the media scene. Pakistan last year topped the list of countries in South Asia for the number of abductions, disappearances and killings of journalists.

Four journalists died while performing their professional duties in 2006. Allegations of security service involvement surfaced in the case of Hayatullah Khan, the Pakistani photographer murdered after documenting the apparent use of a US missile to kill a senior Al Qaeda figure.

Hayatullah was found dead in June 2006 in North Waziristan where he was abducted six months earlier. Before his disappearance, the widely distributed photos contradicted an official Pakistani statement that the terrorist died from a blast caused by conventional explosives and not from an aerial attack.

In 2006, at least 10 other journalists were kidnapped by security forces, sometimes held for a few hours only but in harsh conditions, RSF said in a report. Some were tortured, the organisation claimed.

Amid the mushrooming growth of independent television channels, pulling the plug on troublesome examples is also becoming more frequent.

Last year, two local language channels were taken off air for a month for reporting on an insurgency by tribal militants in Balochistan province.

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