Musharraf v. New York Times, Dawn, Aaj TV, Geo TV, Oxford Univ. Press, et al.

UPDATE (6/7/2007): An updated and more complete discussion of the issues in this post may be found in my column for AsiaMedia on Wednesday.


A couple of weeks ago, in response to a New York Times editorial critical of continued U.S. support for General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram, took a break from his duties as diplomat to perform a quick stint as media critic (thanks, SAJAforum). In a letter to the editor printed last week, Ambassador Akram complained that the Times's "repeated references to our president as a military dictator are offensive. President Pervez Musharraf was elected in accordance with Pakistan’s Constitution by our national and provincial parliaments. His re-election will be similarly democratic." [link]

It will be recalled that Musharraf was swept into office with 98 percent of the official tally in an April 2002 referendum that presented voters with no opponents and the following ballot question:

Do you want to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as President of Pakistan for next five years for the survival of local government system, restoration of democracy, continuity and stability of reforms, eradication of extremism and sectarianism and for the accomplishment of Quaid-i-Azam's concept.

At the time, leading Pakistani lawyers and human rights advocates concluded that the polling was not free and fair and even questioned the very legitimacy of the referendum itself under the Pakistan Constitution. [link] Just last week, soon after Ambassador Akram sent his letter to the Times, a former Pakistani high court judge made the same arguments to the Supreme Court panel hearing the allegations against suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry:

A former judge claimed yesterday that President Pervez Musharraf had no authority to suspend Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, arguing that the 2002 referendum that kept the military ruler in power was unconstitutional.

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“People were made into fools,” [Fakhruddin G.] Ibrahim said of the referendum, adding that the vote’s lack of legal authority leaves Musharraf “not competent”.

Ibrahim called for an end to military rule, saying Musharraf had received a stamp of approval from a subservient parliament. Musharraf is expected to seek a new five-year presidential term later this year from the same parliament, but has yet to announce whether he will give up his position as army chief — the source of most of his power. [link]

Ibrahim might want to check his inbox to see if there is any fan mail from Ambassador Akram. But if all he and the Times get from Pakistani officials is correspondence, then maybe they should consider themselves fortunate, for just last week:

Three Pakistani journalists working for foreign news organisations in Karachi found bullets placed in their cars in what a local media body described on Wednesday as an attempt to intimidate the press into silence. "It is very threatening. This is a serious issue. It is an attempt to gag the press, but we will not compromise on our objectivity," Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, told Reuters. [link]

Over the weekend, the government and its allies cracked down on the electronic media, taking three independent TV news channels off the air for several hours. [link, link] Live coverage of Chaudhry's speech before a rally in Abbotabad (apparently the largest pro-Chaudhry rally to date) was blocked, and one of the channels, Geo TV, was apparently blocked on account of a broadcast critical of Musharraf. All of this came after weeks of escalating media intimidation -- countless warnings by senior government officials that the media must "use its press freedom with responsibility" and "avoid inappropriate reporting," a number of police raids on journalists' offices, violent attacks targeting journalists during the last month's violence in Karachi, and explicit threats last week by both government officials and the national cable operators association that media restrictions were likely on the horizon.

And then today, the other shoe dropped:

Under an emergency ordinance that takes effect[] immediately, Musharraf made a raft of amendments to regulations governing the electronic media, including private television channels that the general has accused of anti-government bias.

The ordinance says authorities can seal the premises of broadcasters or distributors breaking the law, and raises possible fines for violations from 1 million rupees ($16,665) to 10 million rupees ($166,650).

The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority can also suspend the license of an offender. [link]

No word just yet on the circumstances ostensibly justifying the "emergency" measures. But not to be left out of the fun, Pakistan Prime Minister (and former Citibank executive/would-be ladies' man) Shaukat Aziz chimed in as well, warning that the media should "refrain from maligning prestigious state institutions, particularly the armed forces. Those who talk against the armed forces are enemies of Pakistan." [link] One cannot be entirely certain, but it's possible that Aziz's comments were directed not only at the electronic media, but also at Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, whose new book "Military, Inc." -- launched last Thursday, banned by Friday -- investigates the lucrative private business interests that feed the Pakistan Army's power. [link]

Musharraf and his colleagues say that they are all for freedom of the press. In fact, just last month, Musharraf participated in the launch of a new English all-news TV channel by Dawn, a newspaper founded by Jinnah himself (and one that has been engaged in a bitter dispute with Musharraf's government for several years). At that event, Musharraf took "full credit for the mushrooming of private television channels, saying that whatever freedom there was in the country it was only because of him. 'I alone had insisted that we must give them freedom so that the media could hold everyone accountable,' he said while recalling the early years in power when he had framed the media policy." However, in that same speech Musharraf also warned, as he frequently has before, that the media must "demonstrate what he called a certain level of responsibility in the projection of Pakistan" in its coverage. [link]

Explicit media censorship was, of course, a key element of Indira Gandhi's Emergency in India, as this Time Magazine article from July 1975 reminds us:

Strict censorship has prevented the once lively Indian press (some 830 daily newspapers) from printing anything other than official handouts about the crisis. Government proscriptions against "unauthorized, irresponsible or demoralizing news items" last week were extended from articles and editorials to cartoons, photos and even advertisements. This further muzzling of the press may have been in response to a few cases of surreptitious sniping at the government's measures; in Kerala, for example, one paper ran a cartoon depicting Mrs. Gandhi dressed as Louis XIV with a caption reading "I am India." The censors also closely monitored the dispatches of foreign newsmen. Last week the government summarily expelled Washington Post Correspondent Lewis M. Simons, who had stirred official ire by reporting that the army did not solidly back Mrs. Gandhi. [link]

The violations of press freedom in Musharraf's Pakistan have not yet reached such an explicit and blatant point, and perhaps never will. Musharraf might well conclude that he can more effectively advance his domestic and international political objectives by relying on more subtle forms of interference with press freedom than total bans, explicit censorship, and the declaration of a complete state of emergency. Regardless, even short of the extremes reached in Indira Gandhi's India, the situation is not particularly encouraging.

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Meanwhile, according to the State Department, "[t]he direction that President Musharraf set for Pakistan is a good one, and we are supporting that." [link] And in the process, some moderate Pakistanis say that they "are coming to despise the USA." Not that there are necessarily any simple answers here, but mull over that the next time someone tries to tell you that "they" hate "us" simply because "they hate our freedoms."