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Date: Tue, 27 Jul 1999 22:34:19 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: MEDIA-PAKISTAN: Press Gagged By Intimidation and Self-censorship
Article: 71082
Message-ID: <bulk.17775.19990728091540@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 440.0 **/
** Topic: MEDIA-PAKISTAN: Press Gagged By Intimidation and Self-censorship **
** Written 9:04 PM Jul 26, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.
*** 26-Jul-99 ***

Press Gagged By Intimidation and Self-censorship

By Muddassir Rizvi, IPS
26 July 1999

ISLAMABAD, Jul 26 (IPS - Pakistan's independent media is under unrelenting pressure to fall in line with the Nawaz Sharif government, human rights groups say.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its latest newsletter warned that the Sharif government is planning to revive the repressive Press and Publications Ordinance (PPO) in its bid to tighten control of the free press.

"Plans are afoot to re-issue the infamous Press and Publications Ordinance and to adopt an inadequate law on people's right to information," the HRCP said.

The PPO, which was repealed in the mid-1980s, had always been considered the state's strongest tool to control and curb the free press. It had been used frequently to close down newspapers by successive governments.

"The very presence of such laws on the statute book is in conflict with the citizens right to information," said Zafarullah Khan, president of Green press, a group of environmental journalists that also monitors press freedom violations in Pakistan.

Already, the government has forced the country's largest Jang Group of Publications to stop the editor of its English-language newspaper 'The News', Dr Maleeha Lodhi, from writing under her name. And it continues to keep in custody the editor of the Peshawar-based 'Frontier Post' on charges of drug trafficking.

An alliance of Lahore-based journalist organisations and civil society groups have issued a press statement saying the government is exerting enormous pressure on the independent press to give up dissent.

"The press is being forced through invisible pressures to adopt an elaborate system of self-censorship," the Committee for Free Press said in a recent statement.

Other targets include outspoken journalist Najam Sethi, editor of 'The Friday Times' who was released after 25 days in custody on June 3 after the government was forced to withdraw sedition charges. But Sethi is now fighting illegal tax notices.

Fifty notices to the tune of 50 million rupees (roughly 1.2 million dollars) were slapped on him for non-payment of taxes, which he has denied, and the government has also asked the Election Commission to delete his name from the voters list.

"What is more alarming is that the newspapers are being pressured to submit to the Ministry of Information's detailed scrutiny on a daily basis ... Not only the news stories, but also the opinion pages are being subjected to arbitrary censor in many organisations," the New York-based Committee for Protection of Journalists has protested in a letter to Prime Minister Sharif.

The Sharif government has sought to silence the independent newspapers and non-governmental since the introduction of the Shariah Bill, which its critics have rejected as a law that would vest enormous powers in the prime minister.

An angry government took on the Jang Group, which had taken a tough anti-legislation line. The clash took a serious turn earlier this year with the government stopping newsprint supplies to the group, forcing the editor-publisher to go public.

Huge support for the Jang group from within and outside Pakistan forced the government to back off in February, but the Jang Group has since been careful not to upset the government.

The HRCP sees a pattern in the government's actions to acquire unfettered powers, and says under Sharif the democratic institutions are taking a beating. "Political discourse has been polluted by polarisation around narrow interests, and authoritarian tendencies are becoming stronger in the country," it said.

Following the debacle in Kargil this month, from where the government has had to ask its army and anti-India militants to withdraw, some members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League are demanding a "culture of openness" in government.

They would like to be allowed to discuss and debate government policies, a right that was taken away in 1997 with the enactment of the Anti-Defection Bill by the Sharif government.

"If we are barred under the law not to speak or vote against the government-sponsored legislation or any other move in the parliament, we should at least be allowed to speak in party meetings," said a ruling party member.

People have a right to information, and the media must be free to do its work, says Mohammad Jawwad, an NGO worker in Islamabad.

A care-taker government installed after the last government was sacked, had promulgated the first Freedom of Information Ordinance, on Feb. 2, 1997. But on taking over power after elections, Prime Minister Sharif had let the ordinance lapse.

Javed Jaidi, a senior Pakistani journalist says it suits the government to keep the media under control and restrict the sharing of information from the public.

All mainstream political parties have blindly accepted the colonial principle of keeping the people in the dark though access to information would be vital for a democracy, he said. (END/IPS/mr/an/99)

Origin: New Delhi/MEDIA-PAKISTAN/

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved

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