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A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

November 6, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PAKISTAN: Restrictions on the media in military operations in South Waziristan

The Pakistan army has imposed censorship by various means on the independent news coming out of the areas where the army is conducting operations against militants. Officers of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), are reported to have been calling media officials to their offices and telling them to stop covering the news independently and to use only the ISPR press notes or information from the daily briefings of the ISPR.

The military has been conducting a ground offensive operation in South Waziristan, Rah-e-Nijat (the path of salvation), on the border with Afghanistan, since October 17. Prior to the start of the operation representatives from the print and electronic media and also journalists were reportedly asked by the army not to publish or air independent views about the operation for fear that it will provide assistance to the militants.

The journalists are only allowed to remain at Dera Ismail Khan, a city of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) close to South Waziristan, where persons displaced by the military operations are arriving for aid. During the normal course of the day journalists are prevented from entering operational areas and the restrictions are rigidly applied. It is only when the military is successful in some phase of the operation that they allow media personnel to cover that specific situation. Since the operation started, the military has taken selected journalists on helicopter tours to the affected areas on only two occasions. The journalists have been taken from Islamabad, the capital, and from Peshawar, the capital of NWFP. However, they were not allowed to move about freely or without supervision.

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The BBC Urdu service, a popular radio programme in the country, is disliked by the army as it broadcasts interviews through telephone calls directly from the military operation zones. In the effort to stop the BBC Urdu programmes, particularly its Sairbeen programme, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was used to stop the many FM radio stations who broadcast the BBC Urdu news on the hour, 16 hours a day. Those stations are: FM 103, FM106.2, FM 107, FM Apna, FM Ninety-One, FM Okara, FM Highway and FM Gujrat and Islamabad. On the other hand the BBC Urdu broadcast was not stopped in Pakistani held Kashmir.

The BBC Urdu news has been broadcasting from different FM channels, under agreement with the BBC Broadcasting house for two years but PEMRA has turned a blind eye to their broadcasts. Since the start of the military operation in South Waziristan, however, PEMRA has been reportedly asked to put pressure on the broadcasting houses that relay the BBC Urdu news.

The ISPR has increased its pressure on the media and in the latest development an official of the BBC Pakistan was called to the ISPR head office, Islamabad on Monday, November 2, and asked not to broadcast the interviews or statements of the militants as it would create misunderstanding among the people of Pakistan. The officer who spoke to the BBC official asked him why Hakim Ullah Mehsood (the head of the Taliban, Pakistan) spoke directly to the BBC over the telephone. Hakeem Ullah Mehsood, the army declared, is a notorious terrorist. The previous week, a BBC Pakistan reporter stationed at Peshawar, was telephoned by an army officer and told not to interview the residents of the areas affected by the military operation and also not to entertain the Taliban in any way. On another occasion some journalists were told that human rights violations take second place to the importance of the army’s action against the militants and their activities.

According to a responsible authority at the BBC Pakistan office, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Salman Basheer, spoke to the British High Commissioner at Islamabad on November 2, and asked him to pressurise the BBC Urdu news not to issue interviews of the so called terrorists and residents of the affected areas. This message was duly conveyed to the BBC Pakistan.

Reporters without Borders (RSF), an international NGO working for journalists, in its latest statement says that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has ordered some radio stations not to broadcast BBC Urdu-language news programmes, while Parliament, (at the same time), is preparing to ratify drastic censorship dating from the era of General Pervez Musharraf. A newspaper Asaap, published in Quetta, Baluchistan, has been closed since August 2009 after it was forced to stop publishing by soldiers from the paramilitary Frontier Corps. RSF says that the respected newspaper had been shut down by force for two months without any reaction from the government in Islamabad. It raises questions, said RSF, about the level of influence the civil authorities really have on the situation in Baluchistan.

The situation of undeclared censorship of the media by the Army and its organisations is very alarming for the growth of healthy journalism in the country. The actions of military and paramilitary organisations provide a good space for the militant groups and other political groups to use force against the media which would be harmful for the development of democracy and democratic institutions. In the presence of civilian rule and civilian laws, the security agencies do not have any authority to influence the free working of the media. According to all international norms and standards and the Constitution of Pakistan access to information is the right of the people and people cannot be denied this fundamental right.


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