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Pakistan Media Protest Government Crackdown

Pakistani journalists and media rights activists are lashing out against a government crackdown on press freedom. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is tightening media regulations as opposition to his military-backed government continues to grow. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.

The latest attack came Monday evening when President Musharraf issued an emergency ordinance tightening controls on the country's electronic media.

Under the new rule the government can physically shut television stations, fine them and even suspend broadcast licenses for alleged "misconduct."

The head of Pakistan's largest journalists' union, Mazhar Abbas, says the new rules could have a chilling effect on Pakistan's civil society.

"The media is directly under attack," he said. "Even the freedom of expression is under serious attack and it's a clear indication that the government is not interested about restoring democracy in Pakistan."

The new regulations come as President Musharraf faces what many observers are calling the greatest political crisis of his career.

Anti-government protests have surged in recent months, following the president's controversial decision to suspend the country's chief justice.

The media, especially Pakistan's newly incorporated private television news stations, have provided live coverage of the ensuing events, including police beating lawyers and pro-Musharraf mobs attacking demonstrators in Karachi.

The president recently accused the television stations of inflaming passions and providing unbalanced reporting. On Saturday, the government broadcasting agency PEMRA asked news stations to avoid broadcasts that might, as it put it, "encourage violence."

International media groups are slamming the government's recent crackdown.

In a written statement, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described the most recent government decree as "another brick in the wall of censorship."

The U.S. government also says it will be carefully monitoring the situation in Pakistan.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Monday local media should be free to cover political events.

"I understand that there's a judicial process that is under way and the media should be free to cover that process," said McCormack. "It's an important element of making sure that the Pakistani people are informed of what their government is doing."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly deflected criticism of his government by highlighting the country's independent television news stations.

Political analysts in Pakistan say the president now appears set on curtailing media freedom to protect his hold on power.