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Pakistan’s political crisis produces more media curbs

BBC Monitoring

Analysis by Steve Metcalf of BBC Monitoring on 6 June

    Pakistan's current media clampdown appears to be principally directed at three private TV networks for their coverage and discussion of the country's deepening political crisis. But since two of these networks are based outside the country, the government may find it difficult to silence them entirely.

    Geo, ARY and Aaj TV have all given Pakistani television viewers regular, and sometimes graphic, coverage of developments since President Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on 9 March. They have shown - often live - the subsequent rallies, demonstrations and clashes, and sometimes even attacks on their own premises.

    Many observers believe that the real reason for Musharraf's suspension of Chief Justice Chaudhry was not the allegations of misconduct, but the fear that Chaudhry would insist on Musharraf quitting the military if he seeks another term as president.

    In their current affairs and discussion programmes the TV channels have debated the key, interlocking issues that have contributed to the build-up of pressure on Musharraf. These include the judicial issue, forthcoming parliamentary elections, the security situation and Musharraf's need for political support if he is to have another term as president.


Criticism of army

    The government's tolerance of these channels seems to have reached breaking point with their live coverage of a pro-Chaudhry meeting in Islamabad on 26 May. During this meeting, some lawyers chanted slogans not only against Musharraf, but also against the military.

    This "contempt of the armed forces" was denounced by Musharraf during a speech at a military garrison on 30 May. The next day, the information minister reminded the media that they needed prior permission for certain types of live programmes.

    On 1 June, Musharraf held a meeting of army corps commanders who, according to state-run PTV, offered him "unstinted support". At the same time, government ministers were stressing their support of the armed forces.

    Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz was reported on both 28 and 29 May as condemning the anti-army slogans at the Islamabad meeting. On 3 June he was quoted by The News as saying: "We will not allow anyone to defame the army as it is our national asset."

    On 4 June the APP news agency quoted Information Minister Syed Anwar Mehmood as saying about the media: "One may criticize an individual but not an institution. No-one has the right to demoralize the army."


Channels go off air

    During the same period, there were reports of TV channels becoming unavailable in various parts of the country. On the evening of 3 June blogger Adil Najam reported that Geo News TV had gone off air in the middle of a current affairs programme hosted by political affairs analyst Shahid Masood.

    In this programme a retired army chief, General Aslam Beg, expressed the opinion that Musharraf had called the meeting with his corps commanders because the government was apprehensive that it was losing its grip and needed "guarantees for continuation in power" from the military. Beg saw the need to call the meeting as an "acceptance of defeat".

    In the same programme, a vice-president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Kabir Ali Wasti, was very critical of President Musharraf. Wasti held Musharraf completely responsible for the country's current predicament and said that the majority of his party held the same view.

    Wasti said he believed Musharraf should keep to his promise to step down from his army post before seeking re-election as president. He also said he should seek re-election from the incoming parliament, not the current one.


Political backing

    If Musharraf were to lose the support of the PML, or even parts of it, he would need to look elsewhere for backing for his re-election. This has led to much speculation that he is considering a deal with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Under this arrangement corruption charges against Bhutto would be dropped in return for the support of her Pakistan People's Party.

    Another party that Musharraf relies on for support is Mutahidda Qaumi Movement, MQM. The MQM is the main party in Sindh Province and widely believed to have been the main instigator of the deadly clashes in Karachi on 12 May.

    Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is currently in England to urge the extradition of MQM leader Altaf Hussain, who is based in London and addresses his followers by telephone.

    While blogger Adil Najam, in Lahore, lost his Geo News signal late in the evening of 3 June, he reported that a friend in Karachi had lost Geo News earlier in the evening, while it was broadcasting an interview with Imran Khan.


Security Council meets

    On 4 June, three days after meeting his corps commanders, Musharraf called a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the security and political situation in the country, particularly in the country's two most troubled provinces, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province.

    Both provinces are currently controlled by the opposition alliance of Islamic parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i Amal (MMA).

    Media reports on the meeting made it clear that there was deep concern about what Dawn newspaper called "the worsening law and order situation", in particular the increase in suicide attacks and the spread of violence from the tribal regions to the settled areas of the NWFP.


Growing violence

    A prime example of this creeping Talebanization, as it has been called, is the town of Tank. It is in the south of the NWFP, close to the border with South Waziristan. On 31 May 13 people died in an attack on the house of a government official. A BBC correspondent who had recently visited the town said that the area was "unmistakably sliding into anarchy".

    A similar view of the situation was expressed by a Geo News correspondent in Peshawar. In his report on the attack, he suggested that one reason for the worsening situation was a lack of coordination between the federal authorities and the provincial government.

    Federal and provincial officials regularly exchange accusations of responsibility over the violence in the province. Geo reported that after the attack in Tank, Federal Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao had stated that the MMA-led government of the NWFP was failing to maintain law and order.

    Two days earlier, after a car bomb attack in Peshawar, NWFP Information Minister Asif Daudzai was reported as saying the blast was "a repercussion of the flawed foreign policy of the federal government" and "some elements are out to defame the MMA government in the province". Other MMA officials have attributed attacks in the province to the Pakistani intelligence agencies.


Focus for opposition

    The private media in Pakistan have reported on and debated this growing violence and the government's apparent inability or unwillingness to confront it. Another example of spreading militancy is the radical stance of the pro-Taleban clerics and their followers at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad. The News on 31 May reported a claim by the mosque's chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, that it had tens of thousands of potential suicide bombers ready to operate anywhere in the country at any time.

    However, it is the issue of the chief justice which has dominated the headlines and become a focus for opposition to Musharraf.

    Thousands of people have lined the roads as his motorcade has travelled around the country, often taking the best part of a day to cover distances that would normally take a few hours.

    While he has not attacked Musharraf directly, Chaudhry's televised speeches have stressed democracy and the rule of law, and have reminded people that President Musharraf's legal mandate is due to expire this year.


Cable transmissions blocked

    Geo, Aaj and ARY have all suffered interruptions to their transmissions in recent months, sometimes only in certain areas. Most people receive these channels via one of Pakistan's many cable operators, and the authorities' preferred method of blocking the broadcasts is to put pressure on the operators not to distribute them. But viewers would still be able to watch them direct from satellite if they had a satellite dish.

    Aaj TV uplinks its signals to satellite from inside Pakistan. But Geo and ARY are both based in Dubai and their main news bulletins are anchored from studios there. However, many of their current affairs programmes are hosted from studios in Karachi, Islamabad or elsewhere.

    This has led to a situation in recent days in which programmes have been broadcast from inside the country but not seen by most viewers. Instead expatriate audiences in the Gulf, the UK and elsewhere, plus those with satellite access, are informed by an on-screen caption that the broadcasts have been blocked in Pakistan.


Print clampdown possible

    However, under amended powers granted to the media regulator on 4 June, the authorities will be able to seal buildings used for "illegal" transmissions, as well as confiscate equipment and cancel licences. So Geo and ARY may find that their ability to broadcast from inside the country is restricted.

    It is also possible that the authorities may find other ways to put pressure on them to tone down their reporting. ARY has a network of popular entertainment channels and a number of other business interests.

    Both Geo and Aaj have links with publishing groups. Aaj is part of the Business Recorder group, while Geo is part of the Jang group, which publishes the English-language The News and the Urdu Jang, which has the largest circulation in the country.

    According to a report in the Daily Times on 6 June, among the other issues discussed at this week's National Security Council meeting was the drafting of an ordinance to restrict publishing of "objectionable" content in the print media.

    Source: BBC Monitoring research 6 Jun 07



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