Pakistan curbs media as political crisis deepens

ISLAMABAD Tue Jun 5, 2007 7:34am EDT

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's government has put curbs on the media and threatened operators with closure in the hope of stifling an opposition campaign for judicial independence and democracy, analysts and media workers said on Tuesday.

The government is trying to control coverage of a growing opposition campaign touched off by President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to get rid of the country's top judge.

Musharraf, who is also army chief, suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over unspecified misconduct on March 9 but the move outraged lawyers and the opposition and has blown up into the biggest challenge to Musharraf since he took power in 1999.

On Monday, Musharraf issued an ordinance giving authorities more power to shut down television stations breaking media rules, and sharply increasing fines for violators.

That followed the tightening of rules last week that effectively banned live television coverage of opposition rallies, as well as live political chat shows.

Private television news channels have also complained that authorities have been disrupting their broadcasts because of their political coverage. Authorities deny that.

"It was not entirely unexpected. Most people were expecting some kind of harsh reaction, some kind of desperation creeping in," Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst and former member of parliament, said of the action against the media.

"They think that by clamping down on the media ... they can somehow arrest the widespread condemnation of General Musharraf." he said.

Government spokesmen were not available for comment.

"CAN'T STOP THE NEWS"

The Pakistani media, television in particular, has flourished under Musharraf and he hails media freedom and growth as one of his government's achievements. But his relations with the private media have soured since the judicial crisis erupted.

Musharraf has accused some television networks of imbalanced reporting and the government has also objected to opposition criticism of the army carried in live broadcasts.

Mohsin Raza, news director at private ARY Television, said his station's broadcasts were being frequently disrupted but it would resist pressure to stop its live political shows.

"We are not ready to accept these demands and we will continue our talk shows," he said.

ARY transmits out of Dubai, as does another popular news channel, Geo Television, which is why the government had increased the regulatory authority's powers to revoke licenses, he said.

"It's a threat to the independent media, that they can suspend our license, because they can't seize our transmitter."

Hundreds of journalist protested on Monday and media workers were considering a strike to protest against the government's moves, the leader of a journalists' union said.

"Their perception is if they block live coverage of the chief justice and some of the live talk shows, they'll be able to fizzle out this movement," said Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Federal Union of Journalists.

"We think it's a wrong perception. There's a huge amount of private TV channels, Internet, online television -- you can't stop the news."

Mahmood said more tough measures could be on the way. "The next three or four weeks are crucial. If they think they can get away with it, there will be more repression. But if there's resistance, if people come out on to the streets and protest, then this cannot be carried forward and will fail."

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