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ASIA
MAY 24, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 20


Muzzling the Medi
A string of high-profile arrests provokes fears that Pakistan is cracking down on its free-spirited press
By MICHAEL FATHERS

When the 12 men in police uniforms raided Najam Sethi's house in Lahore in the middle of the night on May 8, the prominent journalist was asleep in his bedroom. They hit him with clubs and handcuffs, then dragged him away, locking his distraught wife Jugno Mohsin in the bathroom. "When I asked to see their arrest warrant one of them said, 'I will give you his dead body if you want a warrant,'" she says. "They didn't even allow him to put on his shoes and spectacles." Jugno hasn't seen her husband since then. Last week the Lahore High Court rejected her petitions challenging his arrest. A deputy attorney-general said Sethi was being held at an undisclosed location by the country's military intelligence service on grounds of threatening national security by having possible links with hostile intelligence agencies.

Sethi has fallen afoul of Pakistan's rulers before. He founded The Friday Times, a highbrow weekly newspaper, in 1989 and has used its pages to lash out at government incompetence and corruption. The ostensible reason for his current detention is a talk he gave last month before an audience of academics, politicians and journalists at a seminar in New Delhi. Sethi described Pakistan as a "failing state" that was becoming a balkanized collection of rival nationalities. He had given much the same speech just a few weeks earlier, at Pakistan's prestigious National Defense College, and had published similar remarks. But government officials said that criticizing the country on Indian soil amounted to treason. They accused Sethi of having links with Indian military intelligence and reminded journalists of his past as a student revolutionary in Baluchistan during a 1972 tribal uprising against Islamabad.

Jugno believes the real reason for her husband's detention is an interview he gave recently to a BBC television team preparing an investigative documentary on high-level corruption for its weekly program Correspondent. Other journalists who were interviewed by the BBC have been detained or harassed. Hussain Haqqani, a political commentator and aspiring politician, was stopped as he was about to board a flight to the Gulf and later arrested. A second journalist, Mehmood Ahmed Khan Lodhi, was held by police for two days. A third, Imtiaz Alam, accused the authorities of setting fire to his car.

The pressure on Pakistan's independent press began last year, when the government sought to intimidate the country's biggest media conglomerate, the Jang Group. Its publications had reprinted foreign newspaper reports about alleged offshore assets held by Nawaz Sharif's family. The group was presented with a multimillion-dollar tax bill, had its bank accounts frozen and was prevented from using its stock of newsprint. Mir Shakeel ur Rehman, Jang's owner and editor-in-chief, later made public a tape-recorded conversation apparently between him and anti-corruption czar Saifur Rehman, in which the government official recited the names of journalists he wanted sacked. (Saifur Rehman has denied it was his voice.) In April, Rehmat Shah Afridi, a newspaper publisher in the Northwest Frontier province, was arrested on a drug charge after his publications ran a series of anti-government articles. He has denied the charge and is awaiting trial. "What is happening to the press is part of a known Sharif pattern of conduct," says Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to Washington and now an editor at the The News daily. "Sharif wants to create a political system devoid of debate, dissent and any criticism."

Since he won office in the 1997 general election, Nawaz Sharif has used his parliamentary majority and executive authority to tame various rival centers of power. He has brought the main instruments of government--parliament, the presidency, the courts, even the armed forces--under his control by replacing opponents with allies and ruling by ordinance. He has crushed his main opponent, Benazir Bhutto, who was stripped of her political rights after a tribunal last month found her guilty of corruption. He has declared war on former political allies among Karachi's immigrant communities for refusing to back his legislative program. At the same time, he has made generous concessions to his chief constituency--the voters of Punjab province, Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous region--as well as to the country's orthodox Islamic community in order to consolidate his strength.

Until recently, the media had escaped Nawaz Sharif's grip. The government denies that the current crackdown is part of a campaign to correct that apparent oversight. "These are specific instances pertaining to Pakistani laws," says Information Minister Mushahid Hussain. "They're not linked to freedom of the press, which is enshrined in the constitution and cannot be rescinded by any government." Nonetheless, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, human-rights bodies and international journalists' groups last week condemned the recent arrests, saying they raised doubts about Pakistan's commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.

Reported by Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad



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