CPJ alarmed at govt’s efforts to control press

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KARACHI: The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based international body for guarding journalist’s rights, is greatly alarmed by the government’s recent efforts to control the independent media in Pakistan.

Perturbed over the situation, the CPJ executive director Ann K Cooper has written a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saying: “Since August the CPJ has received numerous reports indicating that the government had embarked upon a systematic campaign to harass and intimidate the Jang Group of Newspaper for publishing articles unflattering to the administration.

“The Jang group, Pakistan’s largest newspaper company, publishes two of the country’s most widely read papers: the daily Urdu-language Jang newspaper and The News, an English-language daily. Jang’s December 14 publication of articles about a financial scandal involving your family’s Ittefaq Group of Companies, reports which have been featured in London’s Observer newspaper, was followed by raid on Jang’s Rawalpindi bureau by officers from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jang Group of Newspapers, has said the

government applied intense pressure on him not to print the offending article, which ran prominently in both Jang and The News. Yesterday, FIA officers spent hours questioning newspaper staff, demanding to check Jang’s actual stock of newsprint against the company’s records. This investigation was apparently the latest attempt by officials to intimidate newspaper management.

“In October, the government served the Jang Group with tax notices totalling over 720 million rupees (about $13 million). Journalists in Pakistan report that those in power have long used the country’s tax code to punish newspapers and magazines for opposing the government. In this case, although the Income Tax Appellate Court has stalled collection of these taxes pending a review of the claim’s merits, employees of the Jang Group have reported continued harassment by the authorities.

“Various government departments have also made it extremely difficult for Jang to obtain sufficient newsprint to publish standard editions of its newspapers. The company’s bank accounts were temporarily frozen by government order, preventing them from purchasing newsprint, and customs officials held a consignment of paper until a laboratory test could be conducted to determine whether the paper ordered by the company was indeed newsprint.

“Jang has also experienced more direct pressure. For example, Shakil-ur-Rahman says that Senator Saifur Rahman — who heads the government’s Ehtesab (Accountability) Bureau, established by the present administration to investigate corruption charges against the previous government — has repeatedly asked him to dismiss a number of senior journalists who have written critically about your administration. Among the journalists on the government’s blacklist are: Maleeha Lodhi, editor, The News (Rawalpindi), Irshad Ahmed Haqqani, editor, Jang (Lahore), Kamran Khan, Investigative reporter, The News (Karachi), Sohaib Marghob, editor, Jang Sunday Magazine (Lahore), Abid Tahimi, feature editor, Jang magazine (Lahore), Mahmood Sham, editor, Jang (Karachi), Kamila Hayat, editor, The News (Lahore), Mariana Baabar, special correspondent, The News (Rawalpindi), Kaleem Omar, writer, The News (Karachi), Sohail Wariach, senior assistant editor, Jang (Lahore), Beena Sarwar, editor, The News on Sunday (Lahore), Nasir Beg Chughtai, chief news editor, Jang (Karachi), Mudassir Mirza, news editor, Jang (Karachi), Khawar Naeem Hashmi, chief news editor, Jang (Lahore) and Sajjad Anwar, editor, Jang magazine (Rawalpindi).

“So far, Shakil-ur-Rahman has resisted the government’s demands to make staff changes, but several of the journalists targetted by the government have recently been silent on politically sensitive topics. “Disturbingly, similar pressures have been applied to the well-respected magazine Newsline, an English-language monthly run by a journalists’ cooperative. On October 1, plainclothes officers raided the magazine’s Karachi office, pressing staff to reveal home phone numbers and addresses of the magazine’s editors.

“According to Rehana Hakim, Newsline’s editor, the administration has also ordered tax audits of the magazine and several staff members in apparent retaliation for the magazine’s coverage of government corruption. Since the magazine went public with these allegations against the government, friends and family members of senior staff have reported receiving intimidating phone calls asking them to disclose their home addresses.

“Although Your Excellency has stated that “no orders have been given by the prime minister or my government to any department for any persecution of the press” a number of Pakistani journalists see the recent actions against the Jang Group and Newsline as indicative of the government’s growing intolerance of the independent media. The administration’s decision to withdraw government advertising from certain publications has also been interpreted by members of the press in Pakistan as an effort to strangle critical voices. Islamabad’s English-language Muslim newspaper — which, like many publications in Pakistan, was financially dependent on revenue from political ads — announced on November 25 that it had temporarily suspended operations after the government discontinued advertising in the daily. 

“As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defence of our colleagues around the world, CPJ joins the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Karachi Union of Journalists, and the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists in protesting the apparent government crackdown on the press in Pakistan. “CPJ respectfully urges your administration to cease all actions aimed at controlling the independent media.” Drawing the premier attention to these matters, the CPJ executive director stated that the CPJ would be awaiting response.

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