Pakistan | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Pakistan

Pakistan

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

66

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

29

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

17

Press freedom was continuously tested in 2007 as media outlets took a lead role in reporting on the ongoing political turmoil and in turn were targeted in crackdowns by authorities. The constitution and other legislation such as the Official Secrets Act authorize the government to curb freedom of speech on subjects including the constitution, the armed forces, the judiciary, and religion. Harsh blasphemy laws have also been used in past years to suppress the media. The controversial 2004 Defamation (Amendment) Act expanded the definition of defamation and increased the punishment for offenders to minimum fines of 100,000 rupees (US$1,700) and/or prison sentences of up to five years; however, this legislation has not yet been used to convict members of the press. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), tasked with regulating the broadcast media, was given additional powers by presidential decree in June to be able to halt broadcasts and shutter media premises. PEMRA intervened several times during the year to restrict broadcasts, particularly those critical of the government, and to ban live news coverage during periods of political unrest. The Supreme Court also attempted to restrict media coverage of the ongoing judicial crisis, issuing a directive that would allow contempt of court charges to be filed against any outlets that covered the case.

Restrictions on media coverage increased dramatically as part of the November 3 imposition of martial law in which a number of civil liberties were suspended and political leaders as well as lawyers and civic activists were arrested. The Provisional Constitutional Order, which replaced the constitution, suspended Article 19 of the constitution relating to freedom of the press, and two additional ordinances imposed severe curbs on print and electronic media, respectively, barring them from publishing or broadcasting “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative, or judicial organs of the state,” as well as any broadcasts deemed to be “false or baseless.” Those journalists or outlets considered to be in breach of the ordinance could face jail terms of up to three years, fines of up to 10 million rupees (US$165,000), and cancellation of their broadcaster’s license. A special bureau within the Information Ministry was tasked with monitoring the 21 national dailies and 13 leading regional newspapers to ensure that they followed the rules introduced in the print media ordinance. Transmissions of many foreign and private networks were initially suspended and allowed to resume only after each network had signed a new 14-page code of conduct promoted by PEMRA, in which they agreed to discontinue specific types of programming, such as election-related content, talk shows and live phone-in segments. Those channels that did not, including Geo TV, the country’s largest private television network, remained off the air at year’s end.

The physical safety of journalists continued to be a major issue of concern. On numerous occasions during 2007, police, security forces, and military intelligence officers subjected journalists to physical attacks, intimidation, or arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention. In addition, Islamic fundamentalists and thugs hired by feudal landlords or local politicians continued to harass journalists and attack newspaper offices. According to Internews, a training and monitoring group, there were 163 attacks during the year, with at least 7 journalists killed and 100 abducted (most were released after a short period of time). Those killed during the year included Zubair Ahmed Mujahid, a Sindh correspondent for the Jang daily, in November 2007; Ahmed Solangi, who was ambushed and shot as he was distributing newspapers in June; and Noor Hakim, who was killed in the tribal areas, also in June. In a chilling trend, family members of journalists also continue to be targeted. The widow of slain journalist Hayatullah Khan was murdered in November 2007, while militants killed four family members of Din Muhammad, a journalist based in the northwestern Waziristan region, in March. In addition, the 14-year-old son of Shakil Ahmad Turabi, editor in chief of the South Asian News Agency, was beaten, probably by plainclothes police, as a warning to his father.

Several reporters were either killed or injured as they attempted to cover political developments or were among the victims of suicide bombings that took place. The spring was a particularly bad period for the media throughout the country owing to protracted conflicts stemming from coverage of the unfolding judicial crisis following the sacking of the chief justice of the Supreme Court in March 2007. For example, the Islamabad offices of Geo TV were raided by police in March, and Aaj TV’s Karachi office was subject to a four-hour siege by progovernment political activists in May. Also in May, bullets were found planted on three cars belonging to journalists at the Karachi Press Club. Members of unions such as the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and its affiliates who held demonstrations in order to protest the treatment of the media were assaulted and arrested, and union leaders faced threats. In general, foreign journalists experience visa and travel restrictions that can inhibit their scope of reporting and are subject to arrest and deportation if found in areas not specifically covered by the terms of their visas; a number of such cases have been reported in the past several years. Conditions for reporters covering the ongoing unrest in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan were particularly difficult, with a number of local and foreign correspondents detained, threatened, expelled, or otherwise prevented from covering events there, either by the Taliban and local tribal groups or by the army and intelligence services. Media remain much more tightly restricted in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where publications need special permission from the regional government to operate, and pro-independence publications are unlikely to be given permission to publish.

While some journalists practice self-censorship, many privately owned daily and weekly newspapers and magazines provide diverse and critical coverage of national affairs. Restrictions on the ownership of broadcast media were eased in late 2002, and media cross-ownership was allowed in July 2003. The government continues to control Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan, the only free broadcast outlets with a national reach, where coverage supports official viewpoints. Private radio stations operate in some major cities but are prohibited from broadcasting news programming. In a dramatic change in the media landscape in recent years, dozens of widely available private cable and satellite television channels such as Geo, ARY, Aaj, and Dawn, some of which broadcast from outside the country, focus on providing live domestic news coverage, commentary, and call-in talk shows, which serve to inform viewers and shape public opinion regarding current events. International television and radio broadcasts are usually available. Authorities attempt to wield some control over content by reportedly providing unofficial “guidance” to editors on suggested placement of front-page stories or permissible topics of coverage. Both state-level and national authorities use advertising boycotts to put economic pressure on media outlets that do not heed unofficial directives on coverage. Throughout 2007, the Dawn Group, which had refused to accede to an official request for a news blackout on coverage of Baluchistan and the tribal areas, was targeted as the federal government cut nearly two-thirds of its advertisements and withheld awarding a television broadcast license to the group. Similar though less drastic cuts targeted a number of other media organizations. In addition, the broadcast ban imposed in November exacted a severe financial toll on private television stations, with many losing significant advertising revenues during this period. Both official and private interests reportedly pay for favorable press coverage, a practice that is exacerbated by the low salary levels of many journalists.

The internet is not widely used, with less than 5 percent of the population able to gain access, although blogs are growing in popularity and many news media outlets provide content over the internet. Despite this, the government did invade online privacy by monitoring the e-mail accounts of some journalists. During 2007, authorities blocked access to certain websites, particularly those that concern Baluchi nationalist issues or other sensitive subjects, with several dozen blocked at various points during the year. During the state of emergency, news websites and blogs—some, such as the Emergency Times, started specifically during this period to provide news—emerged as a primary source of information as a result of the ban on many broadcast channels.