Jang group to seek justice from court

We are ready to pay income tax but not Jagga tax, says Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman

By Anwar Iqbal

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's largest newspaper group said on Monday it was going to court against government's policy of intimidation, vengeance and vendetta designed to muzzle its voice. "We will seek justice from the higher courts and the court of the people. Insha Allah the scale of justice will tip in our favour," said Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, chairman of the Jang group of newspapers.

The government has engaged the group in a bitter tax row as a pretext to muzzle the freedom of press. Although giving adequate coverage to the government, the group refuses to quash the stories criticising the rulers. Annoyed by the group's efforts to protect its independence, the government has implicated it in false cases of tax evasion, Shakil told a seminar arranged to commemorate the 7th death anniversary of the group's founder Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman.

"We are ready to pay income tax but not jugga tax," he said. The seminar was planned as a dialogue between the government and the press but the government decided not to participate. Although Information Minister Mushahid Hussain and two other media advisers had pledged to come, they informed the organisers on Monday morning that they were not doing so.

This did not prevent political leaders, leading jurists and human rights activists from presenting their views. They supported the Jang group's stance that there could be no democracy without a free press and an independent press could only flourish in an atmosphere free of government pressures and coercion.

Chairman Senate Waseem Sajjad defined the press as the fourth pillar of the state which "should play its role in promoting greater national interests and building a better society." Other speakers felt that the government was preventing the press from playing this role by forcing it to follow official instructions.

"A heavy mandate does not give a government the right to do whatever it wants," said prominent jurist S. M. Zafar. Former interior minister Aitzaz Ahsan said the government's policies had "put the very existence of the state at risk". Prominent journalist and a worker of the Pakistan movement Z. A. Suleri urged the government to realise that "a free press is as important as any other pillar of the state without which the country would disintegrate".

"When the hungry set themselves ablaze, the government tells them to ignore the pangs of hunger because we have now become a nuclear power. When people complain of inflation and rising prices, the government questions their integrity. This is no democracy," said I.A. Rahman, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"Democracy is about dialogue. If dialogue ends, democracy exists in name, not in substance," said Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, editor of The News. The only government representative who attended the seminar was Anwar ul Huq Ramay, the parliamentary secretary for information. But he said he had come as a reader of the Jang and not as a government spokesman. "As long as people want a free press, nobody can muzzle it," he said.

Encouraged by this over-whelming support for the free press, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman informed the audience how the government had been using various tactics to intimidate the Jang group. He said the victimization began in July 1998 when the government stopped all official advertisement to the group and froze its accounts. "Then they followed it up with a barrage of income tax notices. And before we could respond, they sent a tax demand of Rs. 730 million."

He said the government prevented the group from using the newsprint it had already purchased, forcing it to reduce the size of its newspapers and stop printing magazines and special editions. "We went to an appellate tribunal against this arbitrary decision. Since we were the victims, the court favoured us. The government had no option but to allow us to operate our accounts."

But the government, he said, forced the income tax department to issue fresh notices. "Sometimes three or four notices were sent on a day, giving us only three days to reply instead of the customary 30 days. Then they sent another tax demand of two billion rupees. This was open victimization but we kept quiet. We did not use our newspapers to air our grievances against the government. Although it was in our favour, we did not publicize the tribunal's decision lest it annoy the government."

"On the other hand we continued to publish government's allegations against the group. Even false accusations against my father, Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman. It was my father's policy to publish everybody's points of view. It's this policy which has made our newspapers the most popular in Pakistan." "We were silent because we did not want a confrontation with the government. We wanted a dialogue. We went to everyone seeking redress. I made at least 40 phone calls to senior government officials, including the Prime Minister. But to no avail."

"Instead we were asked to listen to the Ehtesab chief Saifur Rahman and accept his demands." Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman said Mushahid Hussain "was a brave journalist as long as he was in safe hands (in the media). But now he is in Saif's hands." He read from a decision of the appellate tribunal to show how the court upheld the legal position of the Jang group.

He said the government also continued to send press advice, saying what to publish and what not to publish. "When we ignored their instructions, we started getting more income tax notices. The government asked us to sack 16 journalists because they criticised the government. They sent us another list of journalists that they wanted us to induct in the Jang group. When we refused, they sealed our stores forcing us to buy newsprint from the market."

"Newspaper bodies like the APNS and CPNE supported us. They urged the government to stop this victimization but nothing happened. Instead an FIA team raided the offices of the Jang and The News in Rawalpindi. They also raided Rehan Paper Mart to look for evidence against the Jang group. They wanted to prove that we were selling newsprint to them but the FIA found no evidence against us."

"The official APP news agency reported that the government had registered a case against the Jang group for selling newsprint. We asked for a copy of the FIR. They refused. Finally when we got a copy, our name was not there." "On the 7th death anniversary of my father, we prepared a one-minute advertisement for the television. The government refused to show it."

He said it were governments who forced newspapers to ignore the voice of their conscience. "During the East Pakistan crisis, when we lost an entire wing of the country, the newspapers failed to tell the truth. We are ashamed of what we did but the then government forced us to do so. " "The time has come to pledge never to make this mistake and listen to our conscience. When we publish the truth, we are told that it is an insult to their heavy mandate. We want to topple the government. It is wrong. We can never think of toppling any government. But we want the people to know the facts."

"About 20 million people participated in the 1996 election. About 8.7 million voted for the Muslim League but more than 15 million did not vote for it. These voters are also our readers. We have to tell them what they want to know as well. But when we do so, it offends the government. Is the government not insulting those voters who voted against it by denying them the right to know what they want?"

"We were told that when the government can silence other pillars of the state, it can also silence the press. We were afraid. We did not want a confrontation. But when the government put our very existence at risk, we had to tell the people what was happening. It is not only the question of our survival. The freedom of press is at stake. Democracy is at stake. We are not willing to bargain this freedom for material benefits. We don't present ourselves as the torch-bearers of the truth. No body can make such claims in our society. But we are trying to speak the truth."

"We want to pay taxes. All the taxes that are legally our obligation. It is in the interest of the country to do so. But there are laws and procedures for this and they should be followed. We are willing to pay two billion rupees, even 100 billion rupees, if that's what the government wants in return for a free press. But we are not willing to pay a jugga tax." "Can the government close down the Jang group? Can the government finish those who enjoy the love and confidence of the people? Can anyone finish Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto? No, individuals die, institutions do not. These are ways of thought, of style. Schools of thoughts. No one can eliminate them," said Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman while winding up his speech.

Earlier, the stage secretary read a letter that the information minister had sent to the Jang group to say why he could not attend the seminar. He said that a Jang group advertisement published on Monday prevented him and his colleagues from coming. The advertisement showed how the government asked the group to sack 16 journalists, stop criticizing the Shariah bill and court decisions against the government. It showed how the chief of the Ehtesab Cell asked the group not to publish any story against the Sharif family and extend unconditional support to the government on all issues.

Mushahid Hussain said he and his colleagues -- Khalil Malik and Nusrat Mirza -- had agreed to come because they thought they could have a dialogue "in a democratic and civilised atmosphere". But the advertisement, he said, showed that the Jang group wanted to create a sorry situation. "We do not want to participate in this non-democratic process as it will further vitiate the atmosphere," he said.

Responding to the letter a spokesman for the Jang group said in the advertisement the group had put across its grievances against the government. "This further increased the need for the information minister to come and convey the government's point of view." Democracy, he said, encouraged dialogue and "in a democratic set up all differences are resolved through mutual discussions".

The News International Pakistan