Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
While the additional press restrictions associated with the November 2007 imposition of martial law were eased during 2008, journalists continued to encounter official attempts to restrict critical reporting as well as high levels of violence. The constitution and other legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act, authorize the government to curb freedom of speech on subjects including the constitution itself, the armed forces, the judiciary, and religion. Harsh blasphemy laws have occasionally been used to suppress the media. Under the 2004 Defamation Act, offenders can face minimum fines of 100,000 rupees (US$1,700) and prison sentences of up to five years; however, this legislation has not yet been used to convict members of the press. In a positive step, Rehmat Shah Afridi, editor of the Frontier Post, was freed on parole in May after nine years in prison on spurious drug-possession charges.
Broadcast media are regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which has the power to halt broadcasts and shutter media offices. In recent years, PEMRA has intervened to restrict broadcasts, particularly those that are critical of the government, and to ban live news coverage during periods of political unrest. As part of the November 2007 imposition of martial law, a Provisional Constitutional Order suspended Article 19 of the constitution, which relates to freedom of the press, and two additional ordinances barred print and electronic media, respectively, 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 live news broadcasts deemed to be “false or baseless.” Those journalists or outlets considered to be in breach of the ordinances 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. Television networks were taken off the air and required to sign a 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—in order to resume broadcasting.
In early 2008, PEMRA attempted to impose restrictions on live coverage of the February 18 elections, but many outlets disregarded their directives. A new civilian government was elected, as voters swept an opposition coalition to power despite then president Pervez Musharraf’s attempts to rig the contest. The new government’s stated policies toward the press were considerably more open, and in a promising move, veteran journalist Sherry Rehman was appointed as minister of information. In April, Rehman introduced a bill that would repeal several provisions of the 2007 ordinances, including the ban on live news broadcasts involving suicide bombers, terrorists, militants, or extremists and the provision of sentences of up to three years in prison for journalists who defame or mock the president, the government, or the army. However, the bill stalled in the parliament, and at year’s end the ordinances remained in effect, though they were not stringently enforced by the new government. In general, while political pressure on the media improved, officials and military officers allegedly continued to call and complain of critical coverage, and the government attempted to control reporting on the ongoing judicial crisis. In addition, broadcast transmissions were affected or suspended by PEMRA on a number of occasions during the year.
The physical safety of journalists continued to be a major concern. 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 the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least five journalists were killed in 2008. While some were deliberately targeted, others were killed or injured as they attempted to cover political turmoil or were among the victims of large-scale suicide bombings. Impunity is the norm for such crimes, and many murder cases from previous years remain unsolved.
Foreign journalists often encounter visa and travel restrictions that can inhibit their reporting, and are subject to arrest and deportation if found in areas that are not specifically covered by their visas. Conditions for reporters covering the ongoing unrest in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan were particularly difficult in 2008. A number of local and foreign correspondents were killed, 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 the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where independent radio is not allowed, and in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where publications need special permission from the regional government to operate and proindependence publications are generally prohibited. Coverage of Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province also remains sensitive. Munir Mengal, a businessman who proposed to launch a Baloch-language satellite television station, was freed in February after being held without charge for almost two years, first by the military and then by the police.
While some journalists practice self-censorship, a wide range of privately owned daily and weekly newspapers and magazines provide diverse and critical coverage of national affairs. The government continues to control Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan, the only free broadcast outlets with a national reach, and their coverage supports official viewpoints. Private radio stations operate in some major cities but are prohibited from broadcasting news programming. However, in a dramatic opening of the media landscape in recent years, at least 25 all-news private cable and satellite television channels—such as Geo, ARY, Aaj, and Dawn, some of which broadcast from outside the country—have arisen to provide live domestic news coverage, commentary, and call-in talk shows, informing viewers and shaping public opinion regarding current events. International television and radio broadcasts are usually available.Authorities occasionally attempt to wield control over media content, reportedly by providing unofficial “guidance” to newspaper editors on placement of front-page stories or permissible topics of coverage. Both state-level and national authorities have used advertising boycotts to put economic pressure on media outlets that do not heed unofficial directives, although this practice appears to have declined in 2008. 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 slightly over 10 percent of the population able to gain access, although blogs are growing in popularity and many news outlets provide content over the internet. As a result of the ban on many broadcast channels, news websites and weblogs played an important role as information sources during the 2007 state of emergency. Authorities blocked access to several dozen websites at various points during 2008, particularly those involving Baloch nationalism or other sensitive subjects. In February, authorities ordered internet service providers to block the YouTube video-sharing site, allegedly because of blasphemous content, causing the site to crash worldwide for several hours; the domestic ban was lifted several days later. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance, issued in November, criminalized “cyber terrorism”—broadly defined as using or accessing a computer, network, or any electronic device for the purposes of frightening, harming, or carrying out an act of violence against any segment of the population or the government—and provided for harsh penalties in cases resulting in a death. The e-mail accounts of some journalists are reportedly monitored.