Musharraf's global war on journalism
Anil Kalhan gives a rundown of press curbs in Pakistan -- and of the United States' ambivalent stance on press freedoms
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, as noted in the South Asian Journalists Association's blog SAJAforum, Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador, Munir Akram, took a break from his duties as diplomat to perform a quick stint as media critic. In a letter to the editor, he responded to a New York Times editorial criticizing continued U.S. support for General Pervez Musharraf. Akram complained that The Times' "repeated references to our president as a military dictator are offensive. President Pervez Musharraf was elected in accordance with Pakistan's Constitution by our national and provincial parliaments. His re-election will be similarly democratic."
The Times did not exactly get it wrong. Musharraf was swept into office with 98 percent of the official tally in an April 2002 referendum that presented voters with no opponents and the following ballot question:
Do you want to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as President of Pakistan for next five years for the survival of local government system, restoration of democracy, continuity and stability of reforms, eradication of extremism and sectarianism and for the accomplishment of Quaid-e-Azam's [i.e., Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah's] concept.
At the time, leading Pakistani lawyers and human rights advocates concluded that the polling was not free and fair and even questioned the very legitimacy of the referendum itself under the Pakistan Constitution. And last week, a former Pakistani high court judge, Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim, made the very same arguments to the Supreme Court panel hearing the allegations against suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
"People were made into fools," Ibrahim said of the referendum. He told the Associated Press that the vote's lack of legal authority leaves Musharraf "not competent."
Ibrahim might want to check his inbox to see if there is any fan mail from Ambassador Akram. But if all he and The New York Times get from Pakistani officials is correspondence, then perhaps they should consider themselves fortunate, given the escalating threats to the independence and safety of journalists critical of the Musharraf regime.
Last week, three Pakistani journalists working for foreign news organizations in Karachi found bullets placed in their cars. Pakistani journalists quickly accused the government of being behind the threats.
"This is a serious issue. It is an attempt to gag the press, but we will not compromise on our objectivity," Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, told Reuters. The threats in Karachi came after several weeks of increasing intimidation of journalists: countless warnings by government officials that the media must "use its press freedom with responsibility" and "avoid inappropriate reporting"; a number of police raids on journalists' offices; attacks targeting journalists during last month's violence in Karachi; and explicit threats last week by both government officials and the national cable operators association that more severe media restrictions might be on the horizon.
These escalating threats culminated in a crackdown this weekend against the electronic media, as the government took three independent TV news channels off the air for several hours. In a throwback to restrictions on public demonstrations during the British colonial era, the government also banned all public gatherings of more than five persons. Pakistani citizens promptly defied that order -- at least 60,000 citizens attending a pro-Chaudhry rally in Abbotabad, the largest pro-Chaudhry rally to date according to the Associated Press and other observers. But live TV broadcasts of Chaudhry's speech, the accompanying rallies, and other programming critical of Musharraf were promptly blocked.
And then on Monday, the other shoe dropped. Although for weeks Musharraf had been denying any need to impose a complete state of emergency, the president unilaterally promulgated a more limited "emergency ordinance" that implemented sweeping restrictions on the electronic media, including mobile phones and the Internet. Musharraf's emergency decree authorizes authorities to seize equipment and seal the premises of broadcasters and distributors who violate its provisions. The emergency ordinance also increased tenfold the maximum possible fines for violations of its provisions and authorized regulators to suspend the licenses of any offenders. Within a day of its issuance, more than 200 journalists already had been charged under the ordinance's provisions.
Even before Musharraf issued his ordinance, regulators had admonished TV broadcasters not to air programs that promote an "anti-state attitude" or cast "aspersions against the judiciary and the integrity of the armed forces of Pakistan." Musharraf himself asserted last week that all Pakistani citizens had a "responsibility to ensure that the sanctity and reverence of national institutions, such as the armed forces."
Although Musharraf issued his emergency ordinance only two days before the National Assembly was scheduled to return into session, a government statement said, without further explanation, that the decree was issued on account of "circumstances...which render it necessary to take immediate action." Not to be left out of the fun, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz quickly chimed in, warning that the media should "refrain from maligning prestigious state institutions, particularly the armed forces" and that "[t]hose who talk against the armed forces are enemies of Pakistan."
While one cannot be entirely certain, it is possible that Aziz's comments were directed not only at the electronic media, but also at Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, whose new Oxford University Press book Military, Inc. -- launched last Thursday, banned by Friday -- investigates the lucrative private business interests that feed the Pakistan Army's power, a subject that has long been taboo.
Musharraf and his colleagues continue to maintain, with a straight face, that they are all for freedom of the press. Only days ago Musharraf personally participated in the launch of a new English all-news TV channel by Dawn, a newspaper founded by Jinnah himself (and one that has been engaged in a bitter dispute with Musharraf's government for several years). At that event, Musharraf said, "I alone had insisted that we must give [the press] freedom so that the media could hold everyone accountable." However, in that same speech Musharraf also warned, as he frequently has before, that the media should operate "within certain parameters which could be defined through a broad government policy or through self-imposed code of conduct and ethics."
In cracking down so severely on freedom of the press, Musharraf seems to be taking a page from Indira Gandhi's playbook in India. Explicit media censorship was, of course, a key element of the Emergency, as a Time Magazine article from July 1975 reminds us:
Strict censorship has prevented the once lively Indian press (some 830 daily newspapers) from printing anything other than official handouts about the crisis. Government proscriptions against "unauthorized, irresponsible or demoralizing news items" last week were extended from articles and editorials to cartoons, photos and even advertisements. This further muzzling of the press may have been in response to a few cases of surreptitious sniping at the government's measures; in Kerala, for example, one paper ran a cartoon depicting Mrs. Gandhi dressed as Louis XIV with a caption reading "I am India." The censors also closely monitored the dispatches of foreign newsmen. Last week the government summarily expelled Washington Post Correspondent Lewis M. Simons, who had stirred official ire by reporting that the army did not solidly back Mrs. Gandhi.
The violations of press freedom in Musharraf's Pakistan have not yet reached such a blatant and sweeping point, and perhaps never will. Musharraf might well conclude that he can more effectively advance his domestic and international political objectives by relying on more subtle and limited forms of interference with press freedom than total bans, explicit censorship, and the declaration of a complete state of emergency.
Regardless, even short of the extremes reached in Indira Gandhi's India, the situation is not particularly encouraging. Along with Akram's letter to The Times, Musharraf's attempt to crackdown on Pakistan's electronic media actually gives his war on freedom of the press a global dimension. Two of the leading Pakistani channels that have been targeted -- GEO TV and ARY Digital -- actually originate and uplink their broadcasts from Dubai, an operational decision that was self-consciously taken in part to minimize the degree of government intervention in their broadcasts.
Meanwhile, according to Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher, the United States has continued to maintain, also with a straight face, that "the direction that President Musharraf set for Pakistan is a good one, and we are supporting that." The Democrats have not offered any meaningful alternative to the Bush Administration's passivity. During a debate on Sunday, not one of the Democratic presidential candidates offered any constructive policy response to the situation in Pakistan.
The Bush Administration's acquiescence to Musharraf's crackdown is striking given how outspoken it has been in response to the Venezuelan government's recent shutdown of the opposition television station RCTV. With Venezuela, the often anti-internationalist Bush Administration has sought to internationalize the situation, raising concerns about freedom of the press under Hugo Chavez's regime before the Organization of American States.
By contrast, with Musharraf the Bush Administration has more or less sat on its hands. Indeed, on Monday, at almost the same moment that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was lecturing the OAS General Assembly about the importance of a free and independent press to democracy, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack was tepidly declining to offer any meaningful comment on the escalating interference with freedom of the press in Pakistan, stating merely that the situation in Pakistan is a domestic issue "that the Pakistani people and the Pakistani government need to resolve within the confines of their law."
The State Department's left hand seems not to know what its right hand is doing, although at times this week, its spokesperson McCormack has waved both hands in the very same press briefings. In the process, some moderate Pakistanis (such as the blogger from The Glasshouse) say that they "are coming to despise the USA." Not that there are necessarily any simple answers to the situation in Pakistan, but mull over that the next time someone tries to tell you that "they" hate "us" simply because "they hate our freedoms."
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 6/6/2007