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Rights Groups Say Pakistani Press Freedom Under Attack

  • Benjamin Sand

International rights groups are accusing the Pakistan government of muzzling the country's free press. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports the government is under fire for a series of alleged attacks on independent television stations and well-known journalists.

The controversy erupted earlier this week, when government regulators threatened a popular television news channel over its coverage of recent anti-government demonstrations.

The demonstrations are part of a national campaign against President Pervez Musharraf's March 9 suspension of the country's Supreme Court chief justice, Iftakhar Mohammad Chaudry.

On Monday, Pakistan's Electronic Media Regulatory Agency, known as PEMRA, said the station "Aaj TV" might be taken off the air if it failed to respond to concerns over its coverage of the controversial case.

Two days later, a second station, Royal TV, reported similar threats, and stopped broadcasting entirely for several hours.

Speaking by phone from London, Human Rights Watch's Brad Adams accused the government of waging a systematic campaign against press freedom in Pakistan.

He says that since taking power in a military coup in 1999, President Musharraf's government has been tied to the arbitrary arrest or disappearance of five Pakistani journalists.

"There have been many violent attacks on journalists, and to our knowledge, none of them has been properly investigated, and now you have threats against other TV stations and journalists are back to receiving phone calls in the middle of the night," he said.

He says Pakistan's English-language media, which are closely monitored by international rights groups and foreign governments, are still relatively free and robust.

"But when you take a closer look at the Urdu-language media, you realize that it is very heavily censored and controlled," he said.

Human Rights Watch is not the only one protesting the government's record. On Wednesday, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Islamabad of launching an assault on any news organization covering the dispute over the chief justice's dismissal.

The CPJ pointed to the government's efforts to cancel a popular political affairs show on GEO TV after its host criticized Mr. Musharraf's handling of the dispute.

Several days later, police stormed the station's Islamabad offices as it aired live shots of a violent anti-government protest occurring outside.

President Musharraf delivered a rare public apology to the station several hours later.

Government authorities have downplayed the most recent criticism.

Officials insist President Musharraf has an unparalleled record of supporting media rights in Pakistan, including the introduction of the private television news channels.