Cablegate: What Happened to Press Freedom in Pakistan?
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 ISLAMABAD 002526
E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/06/2017
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PREL PK
SUBJECT: WHAT HAPPENED TO PRESS FREEDOM IN PAKISTAN?
REF: A. ISLAMABAD 2494
B. STATE 77589
C. ISLAMABAD 1354
Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Peter Bodde for reasons 1.4(b), (d)
1. (C) On March 24, President Musharraf told Ambassador Crocker that Musharraf intended to fire the head of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Agency (PEMRA), whose heavy handed interventions during the early stages of the Chief Justice controversy had been "unhelpful and wrong" (ref C). Indeed, after PEMRA interfered with GEO television broadcasts in early March, Minister of Information Durrani apologized, and after the police stormed the Islamabad offices of GEO television and broke expensive equipment, Musharraf apologized. The apologies, and subsequent affirmations that the government was completely committed to press freedom, were accompanied by actions indicating the government was sincere. During the March 24 meeting, Musharraf even stated he was planning to hire a public relations expert to help Information Minister Durrani better package the government's message to Paksitan's vibrant press.
2. (C) So why, if on March 24 the government supported press freedom, on June 1 did it begin to seriously restrict those liberties? The hypotheses revolve around three events.
MAY 12: THE POWER OF LIVE TELEVISION
3. (C) Live coverage of the May 12 bloodshed in Karachi, including footage of people slowly bleeding to death while ambulances were unable to move past overturned vehicles and other roadblocks, shocked Pakistan. Commentators on the scene reported that no police could be seen on the street.
As the live reporting progressed, journalists continuously restated rumors that the MQM city government had ordered officers off the street or had ordered that they not carry weapons. The images of May 12 damaged the government, as MQM is a coalition partner.
PROTEST RALLIES: THE COVERAGE GOES ON ALL DAY
4. (C) Live coverage of the various Chief Justice rallies also bothered the government. Camera angles often made crowds shouting anti-Musharraf slogans appear larger than they were. The Chief Justice's practice of taking hours and hours to drive slowly to the site of the rallies means that the live coverage often lasts the entirety of a Saturday.
Some government officials believe that certain reporters are purposefully manipulating coverage of the rallies to build the morale of the opposition parties.
CRITICIZING THE ARMY: IT'S JUST NOT DONE HERE
5. (C) The last straw, in terms of rallies, appears to have been a Saturday, May 26 gathering when several speakers uncharacteristically offered execeptionally harsh comments about the army and about Musharraf's failure to remove his uniform. Army officials are not used to being criticised, especially on live television.
SO WHO IS BEHIND THE CRACKDOWN?
6. (C) In short, everyone is trying to pin the blame on someone else. Federal Minister of Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, an unofficial government spokesman, told us June 5 that he supported the crackdown. According to him, reports denigrating the army affected the morale of soldiers serving in difficult missions such as in South Waziristan. He said that the army was a sensitive institution that took negative comments very personally. (Note: President Musharraf has often made this same point to visiting Congressional delegations. End note.) Pakistan Muslim League President
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Chaudrhay Shujaat Hussain told us June 1 that the military was being overly sensitive, and that they should realize that people were going to use increased freedom to vent frustrations. According to Shujaat, the crackdown on the media was a result of pressure from senior military officers.
Meanwhile, Embassy military colleagues report that their contacts claim to oppose cracking down on the press. Many military officers say they simply want the Chief Justice controversy to end without causing further harm to Pakistan's reputation.
7. (C) One persistent claim -- by government officials, opposition politicians, and journalists -- is that senior military figures in ISI and Military Intelligence, especially Director General for ISI Kiyani, are the strongest proponents of the media crackdown. These same interlocutors, though, can present no concrete reason the intelligence agencies would choose now to try to restrict the press. When blame is hard to place and an easy explanation is elusive, standard Pakistani practice is to blame the intelligence agencies.
8. (C) COMMENT: In light of the serious attention this issue continues to attract, we should remain constant in reminding the government of Pakistan that their actions to restrict press freedom can only serve to undercut their own short- and long-term political best interests. END COMMENT.