Pakistan Suspends Media Restrictions

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 8, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 7 -- Under mounting domestic and international pressure, the Pakistani government on Thursday suspended stringent media restrictions that critics said were designed to muzzle the free press.

The restrictions, which had gone into effect Monday, had elicited a sharp response from print and broadcast journalists in Pakistan, as well as media advocates worldwide. The rules gave the government broad new powers to rescind television broadcasters' licenses and to seize stations that violated government regulations.

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said the regulations had been misinterpreted and would be put on hold as a show of good faith while the government negotiates with broadcasters. "There's no intention on the part of the government to take a harsh line," Durrani said in an interview.

But Hamid Mir, Islamabad bureau chief for Geo TV, a private broadcaster here, said the government has made clear it wants to intimidate the news media, having pressured cable companies to block several stations' transmissions earlier this week. Mir said the suspension of the new rules is only temporary, and he strongly doubted that President Pervez Musharraf or his government would relent in their efforts.

"It's just stick and carrot. They will not stop until General Musharraf is reelected from this Parliament," Mir said.

Musharraf has said he wants the outgoing Parliament to extend his rule this fall for another five-year term. But his plans were complicated three months ago when he suspended the nation's chief justice, sparking a massive opposition campaign against his eight-year-old government. Since then, more than 40 people have been killed in clashes blamed on a pro-Musharraf group, and lawyers and journalists have come under attack from government forces. Independent television stations have given the crisis wall-to-wall coverage.

On Thursday, demonstrations against the government continued, with 7,000 people massing in the eastern city of Lahore to express their support for the chief justice, Mohammed Iftikhar Chaudhry.

While Musharraf continues to enjoy strong support from Washington, he has become increasingly isolated in Pakistan, with even formerly close supporters keeping their distance. On Thursday, Musharraf was quoted chastising his allies in Parliament for not defending him publicly as the calls for his resignation grow.

"I bluntly say you always leave me alone in time of trial and tribulation," Musharraf told the lawmakers, according to a report in the News, an English-language paper. "You are not delivering. You have lost the war of nerves. You all are silent upon what the media is doing. If I myself have to do everything then you are for what purpose."

The paper also reported that Musharraf looked visibly shaken and told the assembled allies, "I feel disturbed for the first time."

Durrani said the speech was intended as a "tool for motivation."

"This government has done a lot for the people of Pakistan. So everybody from our coalition should be more active" in defending the government, he said.

Also on Thursday, three top military officials denied in court papers that they had pressured Chaudhry to quit. Chaudhry had earlier asserted that he was held against his will for more than five hours on March 9 as the nation's intelligence chiefs and other top Musharraf aides pushed him to step down. Chaudhry said he resisted the pressure and was suspended instead.

But Maj. Gen. Mian Nadeem Ijaz, chief of military intelligence, said in an affidavit that he and his fellow officials "did nothing discourteous and there was no demand."

Ijaz said Chaudhry had asked Musharraf to dismiss the Parliament because it had become "a nuisance." Ijaz also accused Chaudhry of regularly seeking information about fellow judges from the intelligence agencies.

Chaudhry's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, called the accusations "absurd."

The government suspended Chaudhry because of alleged abuses of office, which Chaudhry has denied. His backers have said he was targeted because he threatened Musharraf's plans to consolidate power.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company