CPJ asks govt to cease all actions against Jang Group

NEW YORK: The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed its concern over the range of tactics the Pakistan government is using to harass and intimidate the Jang Group of Newspapers, Pakistan's largest newspaper publishing company, says a CPJ press release.

In a letter faxed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif copies of which were despatched to journalists' organisations worldwide on Tuesday, the CPJ said the officials from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) impounded supplies of newsprint bound for Jang's Rawalpindi headquarters. The action comes just hours after a ruling in the Jang Group's favour by the Supreme Court, ordering the government to allow the immediate delivery of newsprint to the group, it said. This act on the part of PML (N) government is against all the norms of democracy, it added.

On January 30, an official acting ''on behalf of the state'', according to the police report, registered a case at Karachi's Civil Lines Police Station charging the company's Urdu-language daily Jang along with the Urdu-language newspapers Amn and Parcham with sedition, it said.

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman is named in the police file, and is accused of publishing a political advertisement that ''has created hatred in the public by virtue of seditious contents,'' it said. These threats constitute a multi-pronged assault on Jang's ability to publish, it said. In addition, two prominent journalists associated with the company have recently reported incidents of personal harassment, it said.

The letter further said: "Kamran Khan of The News reports he is being followed by agents who say they are with Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau. On January 28, intelligence agents visited Khan's home in response to a story he had written, and, according to Khan, sent a message that 'I must behave because they knew well about my movements and activities.' Khan says officials have confirmed that the Intelligence Bureau is tapping his phone calls, and that transcripts of his conversation have been provided to the government's Ehtesab (accountability) Bureau to 'dig {for} some weak points.' "As an organisation of journalists dedicated to the defence of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is outraged by your government's blatant attempts to control the independent media in Pakistan.

"CPJ' initial protest was sent to your office on December 15. In the letter we enumerated several cases of official harassment, and listed the names of 15 Jang journalists (including Lodhi and Khan) whom the government has allegedly targeted for dismissal. We received a reply from Principal Information Officer Ashfaq Ahmed Gondal on December 19, stating that 'the government has never asked the management of the Jang Group of Newspapers to dismiss any of their employees' and that 'a government that is wholly committed to press freedom cannot even for a moment consider steps that impinge upon freedom of expression.'

"And yet, in a press conference held on January 28, Shakil-ur-Rahman played excerpts of his taperecorded discussions with Senator Rahman in which the senator clearly orders the dismissal of several senior journalists, advises the publisher to hire only those journalists who would report favourably on the government's policies, and demands that Jang's papers desist from publishing reports critical of the governemnt's performance.

"CPJ strongly urges your administration to cease all actions against the Jang Group and its employees in order to demonstrate Pakistan's commitment to the 'promotion, protection, and preservation of the freedom of press,' as pledged in your principal information officer's December 19 letter. "We appreciate your attention to this matter, and await your response."

Meanwhile, the Reporters Sans Frontieres, an international independent organisation which works to defend the freedom of press, in a press statement to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had condemned the government's policies against the press and expressed concern over it, says its press release.

The following is the text of the letter:

"Reporters Sans Frontieres, an independent organisation which works to defend press freedom worldwide, wishes to protest once more about the measures taken against the Jang Press Group by the Pakistani authorities.

"According to our information, on February 1, police confiscated a truck delivering 1,094 reels of newsprint to the Jang press group, despite an order by the Supreme Court ordering them to be returned. A few hours later, when some of the group's staff were staging a demonstration in Rawalpindi, three journalists - Mariana Baabar, Shakil Sheikh and Rana Mubbashir - were assaulted by members of the Federal Investigation Agency.

"Maleeha Lodhi, editor of the daily The News, said she had received anonymous phone calls threatening to blow up the premises, if she did not have the protests stopped. "The Jang Group has been suffering harassment from the officials since August 1998. Journalists believe that it occurs mainly as a result of revelations of corruption within your government The group's bank accounts have been frozen until they have paid a fine of 2 billion rupees (35 million Euros) for 'tax evasion.'

"Reporters Sans Frontieres believes the harassment of the Jang press group could threaten the existence of the company. Therefore, our organisation calls on you to use your influence to enable the newspapers owned by the Jang Group, particularly the dailies Jang and The News, to be published regularly. We also respectfully remind you that the court decisions should be respected by the police. We thank you for your attention to this matter, and would welcome your comments."

The News International Pakistan