Restoring freedom to the media in Pakistan

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Freedom | 23/02/2008
A new Hoot study describes the dimensions of the problem, even as victorious leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz commit themselves to lifting restrictions on the press.
SEVANTI NINAN outlines who the oppressors were over the last three years.

Mapping media oppression in Pakistan

( Full study available at MappingPakistan.doc   )



A Panos-Hoot study




Author:  Sevanti Ninan

Research Assistance: Shayoni Sarkar,

                                      Deepti Bharthur




After their trial by fire during the last year of  Musharraf¿s leadership,  the media in Pakistan is expectant, hoping the elections will usher in a regime which  will respect media freedom.  Winners thrown up by the February 18 general election  have already  stated their commitment to lifting oppressive  laws and bans that affect the media¿s freedom to function.The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has welcomed statements of PML-N chief Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari promising drastic changes in the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra).


In a statement issued on February 21, the PFUJ also welcomed the decision to lift ban on six TV anchors and hoped that the future government would respect media freedom and abolish all ¿black laws¿ against the media, including the two ordinances promulgated after November 3. According to the statement, four of the six TV anchors will be back on air from Friday and the two others a little later.


A few days before the elections took place the Hoot completed a survey of three years of attacks on the Pakistani media in a effort to determine what the major constraints are to media practice in this country. It was an effort to seek patterns in the way press freedom was being eroded. The survey was based entirely on the daily documentation that the Pakistan Press Foundation does of  attacks on the press and the electronic media. It  took into account a  total of  183 incidents relating to news media, and 78 attacks on music and film have been analyzed.  It covers the period  from January 2005 to December 2007, chronicles the growing oppression, and takes into account all  incidents which occurred, which were not accidental, but acts of commission.


For the purpose of this study perpetrators of incidents against the media have been classified in three categories: Fundamentalist, State, and Other. In 2005, the number of incidents were 48, at a conservative estimate.The break up of perpetrators is as follows: 32 were state agencies of various kinds, 4 have been categorized as fundamentalist, and 12 fall in the category of other.


In 2006 there were a total of 43 incidents,  fundamentalist 4, state 26, and 14 other.In 2007 the total number of incidents was 92. Eleven fall in the category of fundamentalist, 54 are incidents in which the state figures as oppressor, and 27 are classified as other.


In all three years the state and its various arms—the government, judiciary, intelligence, and army—were bigger perpetrators than the fundamentalists and others combined.  And the police, who were the perpetrators in a total of 45 incidents,  were by far the single biggest category of  oppressors.


Other major agents of censorship were the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA), Pakistan Telecommunication Authority(PTA), agencies imposing bans, departments which issued press advice, the suspension of government  advertising to the media, closures and  cancellation of declaration,  denial of information, and the  barring of journalists from collecting news. (See tables in full report.)


Oppression by the fundamentalists was more to curb cultural products such as video and audio cds, and films, rather than aimed at news media. Its occurrence grew ferociously in the year 2007. Large number of unidentified oppressors makes it difficult to enumerate attacks by fundamentalists.


Sindh most affected province


Geographically incidents of  news media oppression were the most frequent  in Sindh province,  followed by NWFP and Punjab, with Islamabad being the seat from where oppressive diktats originated. Karachi alone accounts for 42 out of the 183 incidents relating to the news media which were surveyed.


In 2005, police got after the press  for exposing their acts in Mirpur Khas, in Sindh, for violating the official secrets act in  Karachi, and for covering People¿s Political Party leaders in Karachi. In three cases police sealed offices and conducted raids against publications on charges of publishing objectionable material, in Lahore, Karachi, and in Faisalabad.


In 2006 several attacks on life and limb took place in Sindh. One scribe was shot dead in Larkana by armed tribes for covering their clashes. Another was kidnapped and tortured in Nawabshah by influential landlords. Yet another has his eyebrows removed, and was  beaten and humiliated in Hyderabad. One went missing in Karachi, another disappeared after arrest in Karachi.Yet another was attacked by armed men in Mirpurkhas in Sindh. A journalist was beaten and arrested by railway police in Nawabshah,  and another detained and beaten by railway police in Karachi. In 2007 a journalist is shot dead in Kingree in the same province allegedly by tribal chiefs, another shot dead in Mirpurkhas. There was a kidnapping from Karachi.


Incidents of cultural oppression were concentrated in the North West Frontier Province and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). Quite separately from the attacks on the media, in the last three years Pakistan saw a growing incidence of  attacks on cinema, cable, audio and video, symptom of the growing influence of  the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban, and geographically  more or less concentrated in the areas bordering Afghanistan.


As journalist Ashfaq Yusufzai reported for Inter Press Service from Peshawar, On Mar. 4, 2007 there were explosions inside two saloons, a music shop and four other shops in the adjoining Bajaur Agency, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) along the restive Afghan border. The Taliban have reportedly banned music in the tribal areas, and have started fining taxi drivers found listening to music.

He added, a
ccording to news reports, a video shop in front of a police station in Bannu, the hometown of the NWFP chief minister Akram Durrani, was attacked by armed men suspected to be Taliban on Feb. 27, who destroyed CD players and CDs of Urdu, English and Indian films.  


Through  the whole of 2005 there were no incidents. Then in November,  there was the first one in the North West frontier province in Swat, reported in The News: "Faithful in Swat make bonfire of TV sets."  Datelined Peshawar, the report says that  following a sermon by an Imam of a mosque in Mingora in Swat district, people brought television sets, VCRs and audio and video tapes from their homes and publicly burnt them amid slogans of Allah-o-Akbar (Allah is Greatest).


"Reports from Swat said more than 250 television sets were put to the fire in union council Malookabad, located within the limits of Mingora city. The television sets, along with VCRs, CDs and music and movies videos were piled up and burnt in a bonfire. The crowd, which included the union council Malookabad nazim Fazal Jalal, raised slogans of Allah-o-Akbar when the flames of fire leapt into the air and turned the heap into ashes."


As the report puts it this act is a response to a local maulana linking the October 8 earthquake which devastated the region, as a "sign of Allah¿s displeasure with our sins and way of life." He urged the people to cleanse their homes of the instruments of obscenity and start living life in accordance with teachings of Islam. And, apparently almost everyone in the area heeded his advice. The News said similar incidents had also been reported  from a few other places in the NWFP.


In 2006 there are incidents in January, February, March June and August, a total of six.  Three of these are reported from the North West Frontier Province,  and one each from FATA, Punjab and Balochistan.   In Dera Bugti a TV booster is blown up, as is one in Wana.  In Peshawar and elsewhere in the NWFP activists of the  banned religious organisation, Tehrik-e-Nifaz Shariah Muhammade (TNSM) set TVs, CDs, and VCDs on fire during their campaign against obscenity and vulgarity in Manglawara and Charbagh. In Punjab cinemas are damaged. And in June there is a countrywide ban on the Da Vinci Code.


In 2007, fundamentalist ire against sinful media picks up steam, beginning with no incidents in January and ending with 23 in December alone.  Early in the year the Mujahadeen ban music on buses in the Bajaur agency in Fatah.


Throughout the year thereafter there is a steady incidence of the burning of CD and video shops and attacks on cable operators. Ten in April  seven in May and seven in June. In December there is an explosion of incidents. Both audio and video cassette shops are destroyed.


The largest number of incidents are recorded in the North West Frontier Province,  in some eighteen  towns. The second largest number of attacks occur in the Federally Administered Tribal Area where eight locations recorded incidents, followed by four towns in the Punjab. 




The shape of censorship  


Press freedom through these three years was circumscribed  by the following, documentation of which in available in the full report.


By orders from PEMRA

Non PEMRA closures

Bans and Blocks

Press Advice

Suspension of advertising

Censorship, information denied

Information gathering barred





The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority progressed through 2005 to 2007 from taking action against radio and tv channels carrying foreign programmes in 2005,  to clamping down on illegal  FM radio stations run by religious and sectarian groups in 2006, to coming down heavily on the domestic private channels in 2007, empowered for this by an ordinance. Given the turmoil on the domestic front beginning from March 2007  PEMRA was used by the  government from April onwards to block transmissions and threaten private TV stations with closure. In this year there were no actions against fundamentist radio stations, all energies were concentrated on preventing news and criticism of government actions.


Through these three years the action from PEMRA was centered in Islamabad and Karachi, with one exception in 2006 when it conducted a drive against illegal radio stations in the North West Frontier Province.



Then there were non PEMRA closures  affecting the media. In Peshawar, police have shut down 87 FM radio stations which were operating illegally from religious seminaries and mosques in various districts of the NWFP, officials said on May 22, 2006.  In February 2007, in Lahore,  full bench of the Lahore High Court on Monday admitted a constitutional petition seeking cancellation of Geo TV network¿s licence.

Filed by Mubarik Ali Chaudhry, chairman of the Awami Hamayat Tehrik,
Pakistan, the petition has also sought a ban on the network transmissions for telecasting a programme which, according to him, had lowered the dignity of the judiciary.

When three television news channels went off the air on May 5, 2007 in Karachi depriving viewers in Karachi and southern Sindh of the live coverage of the caravan of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry proceeding to Lahore from Islamabad, officials of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) denied any instructions had been issued to stop the transmission of the channels.


International news channels BBC and CNN went off the air in the country in November, then there was a shut down of Geo News from Dubai, due to government pressure. PEMRA is not specifically identified in connection with these closures.  Sources said President Pervez Musharraf himself intervened to stop all Geo News transmissions from Dubai, after a two-week standoff in Pakistan during which all major news channels were shut down by cable operators, who are directly controlled by the Pakistani authorities. (The News) 





Bans ranged across all categories of media in Pakistan, were both political and social in nature, and were  perpetrated by both the Government, politicians  and fundamentalist forces. The bans covered advertising, TV channels,  magazines, websites, films, and music on buses.  In 2007 the culture minister banned portrayal of          wicked characters as heroes. (Documentation in the full report.)         




Press advice, Closures/cancellation of declarations, Censorship / information denied, INFORMATION GATHERING BARRED


For documentation of all of these please see the full report.





The challenge of restoring media freedom to Pakistan will require the following:


1)     Taking a look, at the highest level of decision-making, at how the Pakistan Electronic Media  Regulatory Authority should be recast  to make it constructive rather than punitive in its regulatory approach. Giving it an independent leadership with adequate representation from media practitioners and owners. Also making banning of TV and radio stations and censorship and closures of TV, radio and press, a multi-level process so that ti cannot be arbitrarily implemented.

2)     The government needs to send a clear message down the line to the institution of the police that attacks on the media will not be tolerated and will be punished.

3)     The same police have to be enjoined with protecting journalists as they carry out their professional duties. Cable operators and video and cd shops need to be given far greater protection to continue their business, in the border areas.


Having said this, all of the above is a very tall order. And it has to be borne in mind that the Nawaz Sharif government when it was in power also had a record of attacks on the press. Nothing short of reviewing constitutional safeguards on media independence and strengthening judicial mechanisms for implementing these safeguards, will provide the institutional framework required for more media freedom in Pakistan.







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