Pakistan's jihadi press problem

Critics claim President Musharraf is cracking down harder on the country's secular media than he is on its radical Islamist press.

When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf moved to contain the judicial crisis engulfing his regime, the country's mainstream media were among the first casualties. But no threat was directed at Pakistan's radical jihadi press, which has been just as critical of the president's decision to suspend Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry three weeks ago.

Critics say the discrepancy underscores how Mr. Musharraf's nurturing of Pakistan's private media has spawned a virulently anti-Western and anti-government jihadi media. And while this extremist-linked press spins on relatively unmolested, the country's secular television stations and newspapers face consistent harassment by the government, human rights groups claim.

"Under increasing political pressure at home and abroad, the Musharraf government is resorting to heavyhanded tactics in dealing with critics and the independent media" reads a recent statement from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The proliferation of jihadi media puts the president in a difficult position: Either crack down on them and risk further alienating a dangerous segment of the population, or let them undermine his leadership with conspiracy theories and calls to arms that bolster terrorism.

Pakistan's jihadi press, about two decades old, has largely escaped that heavy-handedness, even though it glorifies the bloody exploits of outlawed militants and expresses violent opposition to the government's policies.

Few have seriously studied this universe of anger and alienation, but those who have say it frightens them. Since 9/11, they say they've watched the collective audience of jihadi media grow four times in size. Radical newspapers now compete with the leading English dailies in circulation, and the jihadi media arsenal includes pirated radio stations, DVDs, and Internet sites.

"These publications should not be taken lightly," says Mohammed Shehzad, editor of the Pakistan Media Monitor, a subscription-based service that translates the radical press into English.

Last year, he and others point out, feuding religious leaders in the tribal belt stoked a violent war between their followers through illegal radio stations. Twenty-five tribesmen died and 15 were wounded.

Even more disturbing, observers add, is that the government cannot – or will not – clamp down on the radical media. "The government is not sincere in stopping them," says Mr. Shehzad.

A poignant illustration, observers say, came with this month's judicial crisis, which was triggered by the suspension of Chief Justice Chaudhry on charges that he abused his position by securing unwarranted privileges and bullying officials. Police ransacked the offices of GEO television, a leading private channel, after it broadcast images of the crisis. Musharraf later apologized for the incident, but incensed editorials about free speech have followed ever since.

But a radio program of Jamaat ud Dawa, an alleged extremist group, blasted the government for Chaudhry's sacking, connecting it to a recent decision to ban Al-Rashid and Al-Akhtar Trust, terrorist-linked welfare organizations.

"The jihadi outfits had decided to challenge the ban on Al Rashid and Al Akhtar Trusts. The Chief Justice would have heard our petition and decided in our favor.... The evil US could not have afforded this.... The Zionist entity is behind Justice Iftikhar's removal," said the group's leader, Hafeez Saeed, according to a translation provided by the Pakistan Media Monitor.

Even though Al-Rashid Trust has now been banned, its newspaper, The Daily Islam, continues to be published. "It shows that what [the administration] wants to ignore, they can ignore," says Zafarullah Khan, director of the Center for Civic Education, who has studied the radical press for many years.

"The government cannot be blamed for any such thing," says the federal information minister, Muhammed Ali Durrani, adding that police across the country have been tasked with confiscating "hate material." "We don't want to suppress media, but, at the same time, we don't want to see the extremists' viewpoint."

Given the proliferation of jihadi media, some wonder if it's a necessary evil in the plurality of views that Pakistan is trying to cultivate. Preventing the radical press from operating, they say, would only legitimize their anti-state anger.

Still, regulation has to be more even-handed, say critics of Musharraf's recent moves. Attacking legitimate television stations sends a skewed message, emboldening the radical press.

The greatest way to neutralize the radical media, they add, is to create more independent media that can criticize the radical press and shrink the public's appetite for it. In the tribal belt, for example, licenses have not been given out for private radio, even as radical preachers pirate the airwaves.

"The only way out of jihadi media is to have more media – to allow more radio stations into the rural areas, where the people can tell their own stories," says Rehmat. "These militant groups will have to compete for audiences, so they'll have to temper their message."

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