Pakistani Press Group Asserts State Allows Repression of Journalists

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ATTACKS on journalists in Pakistan have steadily increased despite official policies that support freedom of the press, says a report published last week by a Pakistani journalists' organization.

The Journalists Defense Committee (JDC) has tracked 39 incidents of violence in the last year, ranging from reporters being beaten to newspaper offices being ransacked to the assassination of a leading columnist by unknown assailants. The JDC has called for "unity among working journalists" as a way to combat the harassment.

Statements from government officials, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, that criticize the press "for its irresponsibility," only encourage the attacks, the report adds.

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"This attitude of the country's highest official toward the press is shameful," the report says. "It indeed provides encouragement to those perpetrating violence against the press."

The JDC report is the latest indication that the Pakistani press, which worked under eight years of tight censorship controls during Gen. Zia ul-Haq's more than a decade of military rule, is once again faced with a new challenge.

"I feel ... very difficult days are ahead for the print media," said Pakistani journalist Zamir Niazi in a recent speech.

The situation was the worst, Mr. Niazi said, in the troubled southern province of Sindh, where an Army-backed government campaign was launched last month to "clean up" the problem of rampant lawlessness, including kidnappings for ransom and highway robberies.

"In the interior of Sindh, on an average, three journalists are beaten up or unlawfully detained every week by the law-enforcing agencies," Naizi said. "Their crime: some unpleasant [news] report filed by the victim."

The government's antagonism creates fresh challenges for the press, says Naseem Zehra, a leading Pakistani columnist and organizer of the JDC. "The role of the state should clearly be to protect journalists and to ensure security. But the government has chosen to become a partisan in this whole process, and any criticism that emerges from the press is met with very antagonistic and partisan remarks," she said in a speech.

The press freedoms that accompanied Pakistan's move toward democracy following General Zia's death in 1988 have brought with them the threat of violence to journalists, Ms. Zehra said. "There is openness, there are all kinds of views that are being aired; therefore, everybody wants coverage in the newspapers," she added. "When that doesn't quite take place, the response to that is violence, ransacking of offices, attacking of journalists."

The JDC says that it will continue to track further incidents of violence, but it is not clear whether their efforts will create the public support necessary to force a change in government law-enforcement policy. Some observers note that the press also needs to be regulated in order to prevent biased and inaccurate reporting, which are often cited as an important stimulant for the violence.

Niazi has suggested the formation of an independent council to monitor press conduct. "The dual purpose [of the press council] should be to curb the cases of journalistic misbehaviour and publicly censure reported cases of bias, distortion, and inaccuracy" he says.

The government has not responded to the report, but one senior official who requested anonymity says, "The dilemma for the government is that politicians are not used to facing a free press like the ones in Western countries."

In addition to the violence, some Pakistani journalists are concerned about the continuing state ownership of television and radio services. And in the past, the state has used government advertisement expenditures, on which many Pakistani newspapers rely, as leverage to influence editorial policies.

"The violence against journalists is very unfortunate," the official says. "But even if the situation on this count improves, the press is still going to be faced with other important challenges."

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