Pakistani government shuts down media channels, some Internet providers

by Muhammad Najeeb, Indo-Asian News Service

Officials of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), backed by the police, raided the offices of the most vocal private TV Channel AAJ on late Saturday night and seized its equipment.

"They did it without any notice or information," an official of the channel said.

PEMRA did not even spare private radio channels. Islamabad-based FM-99 that was broadcasting hourly news bulletins for the last six months suddenly went off air after the emergency was announced.

"Our equipment has been confiscated by the police on instructions from the PEMRA without serving any notice," FM-99 CEO Wasim Ahmed told IANS.

"Despite resistance by our staff, the police led by PEMRA officials entered our offices and studios and took away most of our equipment," he added.

Several Internet service providers were also asked to stop their service until further orders.

"We were told at 6.30 p.m. yesterday (Saturday) to stop our service. We did stop it but started at around midnight and are still providing Internet access to our clients," a spokesman for a leading service provider said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

After the emergency was imposed Saturday evening, all private channels and radio stations were yanked off the air and cable operators were barred from relaying any news channel - national or international.

Musharraf promulgated two separate ordinances imposing curbs on the print and the electronic media.

Under the ordinances that amend the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, 2002, the print and electronic media have been barred from printing and broadcasting "anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organ of the state".

Non-compliance with the new curbs can lead to discontinuation of a newspaper's publication for up to 30 days. In the case of TV channels, the punishment is up to three years in jail or a fine of Rs.10 million rupees or both.

"It looks like we have moved back into the 20th Century," said a homemaker, adding that she had become so addicted to watching private TV channels that she now felt she was in a vacuum.

"November 3 will be remembered as black day in the history of the media in Pakistan," said Yasin, a young executive, while glancing through the dailies at a roadside newspaper stand.

"The (private) channels are off air, radio are not giving any news, even international channels are not available and the Internet is also not available," Yasin added.

Pakistani media persons and common citizens have decried the ban on private TV channels, saying this would only serve to create more confusion about the situation in the country.

"Though fundamental rights are suspended due to the emergency, the right to information is a key right and should not be suspended," Adnan Rehmat, country director for Internews agency, told IANS.

According to him, the very government that had given unprecedented freedom to the media was now gagging it.

"This is a huge backward step. Right now, only one channel is giving news and that is (state-run) Pakistan Television (PTV), which gives very limited information," Rehmat added, demanding restoration of private news channels.

"Well, this what we can give and this is what we have been allowed to give," a PTV journalist told IANS, alluding that "someone" was sitting in the newsroom and giving instructions as to what was to be reported.

Journalist Aurangzeb Khan spoke in similar vein as Rehmat. "It is strange that Musharraf has gone back on steps he himself took. I can't believe it," he said.

article originally published at http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/StoryPage.aspx?id=460572ab-dea2-4703-93e....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey