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Pakistan's Courts Push to Limit Media Criticism


Pakistani journalists protest the killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad, Hyderabad, Pakistan, June 1, 2011.

Pakistani journalists protest the killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad, Hyderabad, Pakistan, June 1, 2011.

This week, Human Rights Watch criticized Pakistan's judiciary for using legal powers to try to silence critics in the media. Journalists, long under pressure from militants and the country's powerful army, are trying to deal with new attempts to curtail their reporting.

At first, Pakistan's major television stations did not pay much attention to the order from the broadcasting regulatory body, PEMRA, that criticism of the country's increasingly powerful judiciary should stop.

The popular talk shows continued. But then, news editors said, PEMRA started issuing warnings to individual shows, reminding them that criticism of the judiciary was considered illegal.

Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said this week that these curbs on free expression in Pakistan should be immediately revoked and that judges should not have "special immunity from criticism."

Both sides to blame

Tariq Mahmood, a lawyer and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, agreed that the judiciary may have overused its legal powers, but blamed reporters for inappropriate reporting.

"This contempt of court law has been there in the constitution primarily to discourage attempts to personally malign judges," he said. "But I admit this law has been excessively used by the judiciary in recent months, and because of that, it has lost its effectiveness. But let me tell you that some media outlets, particularly TV channels, have overstepped their limits, and that has provoked the courts to repeatedly use this law."

But Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said while Pakistan journalism is far from a perfect institution, journalists in Pakistan do not deserve the amount of pressure they are coming under.

"The fact that they keep on doing their jobs in the face of such animosity and so much danger to me is always incredible," he said.

Pakistan has some two dozen news channels, and news-based talk shows are very popular, dominating the airwaves during prime time evening hours. There is also plenty of political satire, such as the Banana News Network, which makes fun of both reporters and politicians.

Limits and self-censorship

But the mockery stops there. Mubashir Zaidi, an editor for Dawn TV, one of the biggest TV channels in Pakistan, said news channels know there are limits.

"They know there are red lines that you don't cross, you don't mock judges, you don't mock the military and you don't mock Taliban," said Zaidi

Dietz agreed there is self-censorship in Pakistan. And he noted that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Pakistan last year was the world's deadliest nation for reporters. The organization said at least 29 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in direct relation to their work since 2007.

Zaidi said although the media is in trouble in Pakistan, coming under pressure from the Taliban, from the military in insurgent areas, and now from the judiciary, it is not about to stop doing its work.

"Pakistan has been the most dangerous country for journalists, so what to do here? But we have to survive, we have to report, as media is the flag bearer of rights in Pakistan," he said.

The dangers facing journalists in Pakistan were illustrated once again this week, when top TV talk-show anchor Hamid Mir found a Taliban-planted bomb under his car, apparently for his reporting on teenage activist Malala Yousafzai.

Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for what it described as her pro-Western ideology.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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