Gagging the press

The News, June 22, 2006
Gagging the press

Being a journalist in Pakistan, especially an independent-minded one who would want to practice the profession as it should be done, has never been easy. Other than the relatively low pay compared with what one gets in many other professions, the problem has always been that there is often a heavy price to pay for investigative journalism. In carrying out their professional duties, journalists in this country face threats not only from the state and its various law-enforcement and intelligence agencies but also from non-government parties such as the land mafia, religious and political organisations and sometimes even commercial entities. The greatest threat, however, comes from the state's extensive and vast intelligence network. Journalists who do stories on, say, issues related to the armed forces, the government's US-led war against terror or those who wish to probe allegations of official corruption at high levels can expect to be warned off. This in the past used to come in the form of an anonymous phone call to a reporter who was thought to be particularly troublesome. Whatever the method, the objective of the warning is always the same: that journalists as a whole (and not just the one warned) need to get into line and need to know that they cannot report on certain things and if they do, then they should be prepared for the consequences.

Of late, however, these warnings have assumed more sinister proportions. The family of late Hayatullah Khan alleges that his murder was perpetrated by an intelligence agency, and the detention incommunicado for over three months of Mukesh Rupeta, a correspondent of this newspaper and Geo TV, severely undermines the claims often made by the president and the prime minister that the press is free. Mr Rupeta had been missing since early March and it was only after his disappearance was disclosed by his employers that he was presented before a court. Till then, the government -- as per what seems to have become the 'standard operating procedure' in such cases -- had been denying any knowledge of his whereabouts. However, the day the national press reported that he had been missing for over three months, and that he might have been taken into custody by the intelligence agencies for filming a military installation, he was produced before a court and the police filed charges against him under the Official Secrets Act.

What was the need to detain him and his camera man incommunicado for over three months? If the government believes that a journalist has violated a certain law and detains him, then surely it should not lie about the matter and deny any knowledge of the detention. It also does not have the moral prerogative to detain him for an indefinite period without notifying his family, presenting him before a court and providing him access to a lawyer. From the number of such cases in the past, it would seem that those doing the detaining surely could not be working without the sanction of their superiors. Tacit or explicit approval of such barbaric methods whose sole objective is to terrorise and intimidate all journalists must stop. A truly free press is an important cog -- in fact a prerequisite -- for a fully functional democracy because of its role of monitor over government policies, decisions and the conduct of public officials. Crude methods aimed at gagging the press and thus preventing it from carrying out its crucial watchdog function should be permanently dispensed with, because they have no place in this day and age and because they thoroughly contradict official claims on press freedom.

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