Freedom of Press Under Attack
Society and democracy is on the line in Pakistan. The Jang Group of Newspapers which publishes several magazines is in direct confrontation with the state in Pakistan. Several of the group's magazines have had to cease publication and its papers are down to skeletal size due to their newsprint stocks being barred from reaching the presses. There seem to be several reasons for this. Mir Shakeel says, "I've been pushed to the limit by what they've done to my 'child' Jang, and to journalistic freedom... It is difficult to stand up to state power. Anything can happen... even my life is in danger."
The Jang Group filed a Constitutional Petition before the Supreme Court, pleading tha the government's actions against it have been malafide and infringe on freedom of the press. The petition followed the Group's unexpected decision to go public with the government's efforts to intimidate it and bring it 'into line'. Matters had come to a head when front page advertismements in Jang publications exposed the government's attempt to bring them in line, including demands to remove 16 senior journalists and support it on various policy matters like the controversial 15th Amendment ("Shariat Bill") and its handling of the law and order situation. Then the group made public taped conversations between Mir Shakeel and Senator Saifur Rehman in which the latter made explicit and implicit threats to and demands from the Jang Group. The tapes caused a major embarrassment to the government which has been unable to categorically deny that these demands and threats were made.
The tension had been building since mid-1998, coinciding with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's announcement of the controversianl Shariat Bill, as well as the planned launch of Geo, a Dubai-based South Asian satellite channel backed by the Jang Group. The government's total control on the electronic media is a major hindrance to the freedom of expression and information in Pakistan (130 million population) about 30 per cent literate. With these literacy figures, the Jang Group's virtual monopoly on the print media has long made it the most influential and widely read newspaper group in Pakistan is the largest Urdu language paper in the world with an estimated print run of 800,000 from several major cities in Pakistan, as well as a daily bilingual edition from London. Information Minister, Senator Mushahid Hussain claimed that the Jang Group was `blackmailing' the government because of its refusal to allow the Group to move into the electronic media. Geo needs a lot of money to run and by hitting at the Jang Group's milch cow, the government has made sure that the Group is too entangled in financial matters to even thing about moving ahead with Geo.
The pressure tactics include freezing the Group's bank accounts and stopping its consignment of imported newsprint. Since August 1998 various income tax notices began being served on the Jang Group. In October, the Group was served with tax notices totalling over 720 million rupees (about US$ 13 million). The move was followed by freezing the Group's bank accounts and seizing its stores of newsprint. The case went to the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, which ruled in favour of the Group but the harassment has continued. Between Nov. 25 and Dec. 22 twenty five notices were served on the Jang Group for various offences. On Dec. 22 a demand for approximately Pakistan Rupees two billion in tax arrears was made against the Group. "They are trying to make it an adminsitrative and tax issue rather than the freedom of expression," says Mir Shakeel. Critics like People's Party Senator Aitzaz Ahsan said, "Why don't they file cases of tax evasion against Nawaz Sharif?" since the Prime Minister paid only Rupees 477 in taxes last year. Senator Saif paid zero income tax. Others, like human rights activist and former editor of The Frontier Post Aziz Siddiqui said, "If the Jang Grup is in tax default, the obvious question is, why was that not left to be sorted out in the normal way?" Even defaulters have the right to contest a reassessment. Why was the punishment meted out ahead of the due process in terms of freezing bank accounts and blocking newsprint?" Prominent lawyer Khalid Ranjha said that there were only two institutions left to withstand the government in Pakistan: bar associations and the press. "The action against the press has started."
This is a summary of a longer piece sent to us by Beena Sarwar from Lahore.