Freedom of Press in Pakistan – by Hameed Haroon of Dawn

Hameed Haroon’s letter. Timing is impecable.

Dear Madam / Sir,

I am writing to draw your attention to an important matter that indicates the rapidly worsening environment for the freedom of press in Pakistan.

It has always been difficult for governments to coexist with a free and independent press in Pakistan. Of late, however, the government headed by President Musharraf has become increasingly intolerant towards criticism in the press and towards the publishing of news that reflects poorly on the performance of his government on security matters.

One of the intended casualties of this swelling hostility between government and press in Pakistan is the DAWN Group of Newspapers, the country’s largest independent English language newspaper and magazines publishing house.

Since December 2006, the DAWN Group is facing massive advertising cuts equivalent to two thirds of total government advertising. This has occurred primarily as a consequence of a decision ostensibly taken by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s government, but in reality ordered by General Musharraf and engineered by several of his advisors that constitute the government’s inner cabinet.

It is clear that objections to the propriety of the DAWN Group’s editorial policies emanate mainly from President Musharraf’s office and his stance is heavily influenced by key advisors who have been entrusted with responsibility for implementing crisis management and conflict control in flashpoint areas. Particularly sensitive for the agreement are the escalating developments in Pakistan’s western province of Baluchistan, and in the tribal agencies of North & South Wazirstan on the Afghan border. Also irksome have been the DAWN Group’s related attempts to monitor a recurring tendency toward covert militancy among responsible decision-makers in government.

While preparing this dossier, I have attempted to include details and supporting documentation wherever possible, to facilitate your assessment as a key practitioner in the press rights movement internationally. Recent events in Pakistan indicate that attempts by the government to curtail the autonomy of the judiciary have been on the increase. This may have facilitated a temporary unintended pause in the government’s relentless campaign to muzzle the press. But such pauses presage a return to more coercive methods by government against the press, once the messy business of the executive – judicial conflict is brought to a successful halt.

If you peruse the documents accompanying this letter, you will find a chronology of events that cover the continuing conflict between the DAWN Group and the Government of Pakistan in the critical years 2004 to 2007. (Refer Appendix A 1.0) and that reflects some of the main causes of the present breakdown of communication between the government and the DAWN Group.

In the first phase, approximating with the years 2004 to 2005, the Government of Pakistan essentially worked by attempting to exert pressure on the Dawn Group by proxy – the proxy in this case being the Provincial Government of Sindh. It is in Sindh’southern metropolis of Karachi, that the headquarters of the DAWN Group of Newspapers are located.

This period first witnessed the government’s exerting of harsh pressures on our daily evening newspaper – The STAR – by attempting to intimidate and harass journalists with false cases and concocted charges, and by a failed attempt to implicate the writer of this letter, as CEO of the Group, in a totally fabricated incident of terrorism and illegal weapons possession. (Refer Appendix A 1.1.1, to, 1.1.4 and 2.1.2 )

This attempt culminated with a complete ban on advertising on DAWN Group newspapers and magazines by the Government of Sindh. However, in response to a petition filed by DAWN’s lawyers, the Sindh High Court ruled in DAWN’s favour. The Sindh Government sensing an impeding debacle withdrew the advertising ban in advance of the Court’s final verdict.

The second stage involved the direct exerting of pressure by the Federal Government itself. After a series of fumbling measures and half-hearted advertisement bans by the Federal Government with respect to DAWN in 2005, a turning point was reached when one of our influential current affairs magazines, the HERALD, published a series of controversial stories and articles from June 2005 onwards on topics such as the Pakistan Government’s war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in North and South Wazirstan; a possible resurgence of covert government support to Kashmiri militants; and also on the mushrooming policy debacle for government with respect to the Bugti insurgency in Baluchistan. (Refer Appendix A 1.2.1, to, 1.2.4 and 2.2.2 )

In September 2006 when the government approached DAWN in its attempt to seek a news blackout regarding Baluchistan and the troubled FATA agencies of North and South Wazirstan, the editor of DAWN, Mr. Abbas Nasir, and the Directors of the Board of the DAWN Group, concluded that the government’s ‘request’ was unreasonable and needed to be firmly turned down. (Refer Appendix A 2.2.2 September – December 2006)

As a consequence, the government imposed an almost comprehensive ban on Federal Government advertising. (Refer Appendix A 2.2.2t) with an intent to provoke the financial collapse of the DAWN Group.

The DAWN Group had somewhat anticipated events from the increasingly strident tone of government criticism of its news policies and from the subsequent escalation in unreasonable informational demands from the government. As a precautionary measure aimed at reducing large financial deficits, we were forced to suspend the publication of our newspaper, the STAR, an important, but financial deficit generating newspaper, which has existed for over half a century and had been founded by working journalists of the DAWN Group.

Financial conditions within DAWN now became even more vulnerable to outside pressures as a consequence of our decision to commence work on a new TV channel – DAWN News. The grant of television broadcasting licences by the government towards such end is farmed out to a government organisation – the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) set up courtesy of an Ordinance passed in 2002. The President of Pakistan had on three different occasions in the last three years publicly announced that the controversial cross-media ownership rule (illegally tagged onto the PEMRA Ordinance as a subsequent rule/regulation by the authority) would be withdrawn and the large resource of talent available in the print media would be allowed to participate in the burgeoning electronic media revolution in Pakistan. Public opinion expressed itself in the widely held conviction that with the entry of the mainstream print media in the electronic media profession, discriminatory attitudes and the repressive stance of PEMRA with respect to press freedoms in the electronic media (Refer Appendix B & Appendix C) would be rolled back. However, the government’s current position in the courts with respect to DAWN’s application for a television broadcast licence . (Refer Appendix A 2.3.2) has forced a rapid reassessment of public opinion with respect to the bonafides of government intention and clearly demonstrates that President Musharraf’s government is bent on pursuing a policy of blatant cronyism vis a vis the inclusion of selected and preferred print media houses in the electronic media revolution , and the rejection of others considered as hostile or non-compliant to government needs.

The government also appears determined to continue the domination of all news content on TV channels and on FM radio through harsh and repressive regulatory directives from PEMRA, evidenced in the grant of temporary uplink permissions in place of valid broadcasting licenses to selected channels of PEMRA’s preference.

The recent spate of programmes banned on television by PEMRA and a physical attack engineered by government on the offices of a prominent TV news channel-cum-newspaper office, clearly demonstrate the prevalence of government’s excesses in this matter.

In early December 2005 when the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Shaukat Aziz summoned the undersigned to a meeting at Governor House (Sindh) to announce the Sindh Government’s decision to withdraw its advertising ban on the DAWN Group, he clearly informed me that the government was keen that DAWN should go ahead and set up a TV channel for the broadcast of English language news. The President’s constant public declarations regarding the withdrawal of the notoriously exclusionary cross-media ownership clause in the PEMRA rules and regulations and Parliament’s decision to finally withdraw this rule have not resulted in the licenses promised to newspaper publishing houses outside of government favour- this despite the passing of the legislation by both houses of Parliament . Such permissions have only been granted arbitrarily to selected groups by the government. This has led to a situation where we, at DAWN, in anticipation of the government decision to implement the new law have set up an entire organisation in Pakistan, employing over 350 journalists, technicians and managerial personnel and are anxiously awaiting the promised government license, all the while being forced to squander large financial outlays in anticipation of this.

The government’s refusal to give us a license mainly stems from our refusal to submit to its unethical pressures while reporting events in Baluchistan and North & South Waziristan. This refusal has become an acute cause of concern for the future financial viability of our publishing group.

Clearly the government would dearly like to see us lay off our journalists as they are viewed as a potential source of unwelcome criticism of government policies, rather than as compliant sheep to be hurriedly shepherded by PEMRA according to government whim.

Our colleagues in organisations devoted to protecting the freedom of the press throughout the world have always been a source of moral inspiration and help to us in our struggle for press freedoms in Pakistan.

We therefore urge you to extend your help in this matter and would appreciate if you address your concerns to the authorities in Pakistan regarding the following areas:

1. That the advertising ban by the Federal Government on the DAWN Group’s advertising is both unwarranted and unethical and a transparent mechanism to exert pressure on the newspaper group’s policies in contravention of the internationally accepted norms of objective news reporting.

2. That the decision to withhold a television broadcast license to the DAWN Group by the government is in violation of the judgments of the High Court of Sindh and the consent declarations made by PEMRA and the Federal Minister of Information in the Sindh High Court. Such right should be granted to other applying media groups as well on the same terms .

3. That the Government of Pakistan continue to submit its policies in Baluchistan and its agreements with the pro Taliban tribesmen of North & South Waziristan to the rigorous assessment of public and media scrutiny.

4. That the Government of Pakistan desist from abducting and arresting journalists in the judicious performance of their duties, and desist from physically attacking newspaper offices as has occurred last week in Islamabad.

Your concerns in this respect may be addressed to:

The President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf,

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Shaukat Aziz,

The Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Justice Rana Bhagwandas,

The Federal Minister for Information Development, Government of Pakistan, Mr Mohammed Ali Durrani.

In addition your concerns should also be expressed to other key decision makers in the Government of Pakistan, urging all of them to desist from repressive, illegal and unethical practices deployed in their effort to subvert press freedoms.

For your ease of communication, I am including relevant fax contact details:

General Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan ++9251-9221388

Mr Shaukat Aziz, Prime Minister of Pakistan ++9251-9212866

Justice Rana Bhagwandas, Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan++9251-9213452

Mr Mohammed Ali Durrani, Federal Minister for Information Development, Government of Pakistan ++9251- 9203740

Thank you in anticipation for your much needed support in this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Hameed Haroon.

CEO & Publisher,

DAWN Group of Newspapers

Appendix A- Freedom of Press in Pakistan

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