Hundreds demonstrate in support of press freedom

By Shahed Sadullah

LONDON: Around 600 angry Pakistanis from all walks of life demonstrated loudly in support of the press freedom in Pakistan in front of the Pakistan High Commission here in Knightsbridge on a bitterly cold February afternoon yesterday, with the wind chill temperature dipping well below zero. Carrying placards and raising vociferous slogans, the demonstrators pronounced their unequivocal support for free speech and demanded that the government of Pakistan should immediately stop its harassment and victimisation campaign against the Jang Group.

Supported by over 45 Pakistani organisations, representing all the Pakistani political parties in the United Kingdom, except the Pakistan Muslim League (N), the demonstration heard speaker after speaker condemn the treatment being meted out to the Jang Group and raised slogans of "shame!" when Jang London Editor Zahoor Niazi recounted the measures the government had taken against the Jang Group. Zahoor told the gathering that the government, displeased with the publication in the Jang's newspapers details of the wrongdoings of those in power, had demanded the sacking of 16 journalists and the group's support for government's policies. When the group refused to bow before the government's threats, the group's accounts were frozen, its newsprint supply forcibly stopped, all government ads discontinued and its leading journalists followed, taped and harassed, he said.

However, the demonstrators heard amongst cheers of support, that on Saturday the government had finally succumbed to public pressure and agreed to have unconditional talks with the group. They were also told that the government's standoff with Jang had now assumed a much wider dimension with the decision of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) to join the Jang Group in its action against the government in the Supreme Court.

Speakers regretted the fact that yet again, a decade after the end of military dictatorship in Pakistan, it has had become necessary for Pakistanis to stand before their High Commission and demand their just rights. Abbas Malik of Jang said he was in Pakistan last week when he had heard the tape in which Saifur Rahman tried to intimidate Jang's Editor in Chief Mir Shakil ur Rahman.

Slogans were raised against Saifur Rahman, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Information Minister Mushahid Hussain and in support of journalists and press freedom. All the speakers highlighted the fact that this was not just a fight which concerned journalists, but one which concerned every Pakistani as the press was the final bastion against totalitarianism in the country.

A variety of placards depicted the mood of the demonstrators. One asked Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as to who gave him the mandate to destroy press freedom. At the end of the demonstration, a memorandum was submitted to the Pakistan High Commission. It conveyed to the government the demonstrators' "deep concern, anguish and disappointment over the government's deplorable actions in trying to curb the freedom of the independent press in Pakistan". It warned that "this effort, if allowed to succeed, would mean that the entire information system would be in government's hands as the electronic media has already been reduced to a government tool."

The memorandum requested the government of Pakistan to immediately:

(a) Withdraw the demand for the sacking of journalists of the Jang Group,

(b) Restore the Jang Group's newsprint supply,

(c) Release its frozen bank accounts,

(d) Cease immediately all raids and other acts of harassment against the Jang Group or any other Pakistani publication,

(e) Withdraw the treason cases filed against three Pakistani publications,

(f) Unseal the Group's newsprint godowns illegally sealed by the government,

(g) Withdraw unconditionally all threats of arrest or prosecution against the Chief Executive of the Jang Group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman,

(h) Restore government ads to the Jang Group which is their right on the strength of their circulation figures and

(i) Stop pressure on the private sector dissuading them from giving ads to the Jang Group.

The memorandum declared that it had the full support of such reputed international organisations as the Commonwealth Press Union, the World Association of Newspapers, Index on Censorship and Article 19.

The News International Pakistan