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Crackdown in Pakistan Limits Press Freedoms

When President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan's constitution early in November, he also clamped down on independent news reporting. The government shut down TV stations, stopped foreign cable newscasts and imposed a new law governing the content of news reports. Those found guilty could go to prison for up to three years, pay heavy fines and find their broadcasting licenses suspended. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports citizens and journalists are protesting the bans.

"We want freedom! We want freedom!"

Demonstrators at an Islamabad rally demand President Pervez Musharraf reverse sweeping curbs he imposed on the privately owned TV networks when he suspended the constitution.

The government also stopped cable operators from broadcasting both local and international news channels in Pakistan -- and just this week stopped imports of satellite receivers.

Journalists are staging daily protests. Talat Hussain is with the private AAJ-TV Network. "The media may have made mistakes but no mistake justifies shutting down the media like this government has done," he says.

Dan Harris, who works for a U.S. TV network, says the restrictions on press freedom are wrong. "I am journalist so I believe there should be no restrictions on the media unless there are grave national security concerns."

Naseem Zehra is a columnist at an independently owned newspaper in Pakistan. “This is a landmark movement for the freedom of media and it has never happened before that with just one stroke of an axe the freedom of press has been suppressed."

Media owners say the government requires them to sign a "code of conduct" before returning to air.

A new law makes it illegal to report critically about the government policies, discuss Supreme Court cases challenging Musharraf's re-election as president, and broadcast live coverage of anti-government protests. The law outlaws content judged to be defamation of the president and other key government officials.

Private television networks flourished after General Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999, the president publicly encouraging a free press. But media reports have been highly critical of General Musharraf after he tried to remove the country's chief justice in March. General Musharraf says the new regulations are meant to encourage what he calls "responsible journalism".

"I am for independence of the media and that is what I gave to the media in Pakistan,” said the president. “Do please criticize the government, do please criticize me but there has to be checks on defamation by design."

Tahira Abdullah is a civil rights activist. "Who shall define what responsibility means? Who shall define what the code of conduct will have in it? Who shall define what is acceptable and unacceptable to the government of Pakistan? This is value-laden, judgmental and subjective. We reject it in its entirety."

There are more than 70 million cell phone users in the country, many with text messaging that enables Pakistanis to pass around information. Former General Talat Masood says the phones can bring news to users despite the government ban on independent media. "It (the ban) will give rise to a lot of rumor mongering because whenever there is an information vacuum or credibility vacuum, then rumors become afloat and the government will very much greatly suffer as a result of that.

Critics of the government say that if the ban on media is not lifted, informal news suppliers will grow in power, and some of them will provide unreliable information to millions of Pakistanis.