Friday, June 8, 2007

Thousands Of Pakistanis Protest Media Restrictions

Despite the pre-emptive arrests of hundreds of Pakistani political activists, the protests planned for Thursday drew thousands of people, nearly half of them lawyers, as Pakistan's Dawn reports:

Thousands protest Pakistan media curbs
LAHORE, Pakistan, June 7 (AFP) - More than 6,000 Pakistani lawyers and opposition activists protested Thursday against tough media curbs imposed by President Pervez Musharraf amid a tense judicial crisis.

Demonstrators chanted “Go, Musharraf, go” in Lahore and other key cities.

Lawyers burned copies of the new rules in Lahore, while political workers carried pictures of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif as well as cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Officials said around 2,000 lawyers and 3,000 other people turned out in the city.

Police laid barbed wire coils across a main road to keep them away from a provincial governor's residence.

“We express solidarity with media men and condemn the new rules,” Liaquat Baloch, a senior leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami party, told the rally.

In the southwestern city of Quetta around 100 journalists wearing black armbands walked out of the provincial assembly and joined another 1,000 lawyers, labour unions and opposition members of parliament.

Another 500 media workers and opposition supporters marched in the northwestern city of Peshawar, witnesses said.

European Union and European Commission ambassadors to Islamabad said in a statement Thursday they were concerned about recent developments in Pakistan.

They said they were “concerned by recent setbacks with regard to media freedom, in particular reports about blocked transmissions of licenced cable TV stations and about cases of intimidation of journalists.

“Those developments are of particular concern in view of the upcoming election process.”

New York-based group Human Rights Watch urged military ruler Musharraf to lift the restrictions in a statement Wednesday, denouncing the move as a disgraceful assault on press freedom.
As is my cold custom, I have added a bit of space and a bit of emphasis to this and other quoted passages.

The unrest in Pakistan has multiple causes and has been brewing for a long time, but it was triggered by the sacking three months ago of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the country's Chief Justice, whose status is now described as "suspended".

For those not familiar with the case (and at the risk of quoting my frozen self), here's the gist of a piece I wrote about it in March:
On March 9, the General-President dismissed the nation's Chief Justice, on charges of "misconduct" and "misuse of office."

Why? [...] the General-President needs a pliant [judiciary] since he is planning to stage-manage his reelection for another five-year term, and he also wants to retain the top military rank indefinitely, both in flagrant violation of the country’s constitution.

How flagrant? The country's lawyers staged a virtually unanimous protest, but they were shut down by the police. Now, as unrest spreads throughout the country, the suddenly former Chief Justice says he's innocent and wants an open trial, whereas the General-President is asking him not to turn it into "a political issue".

Does this matter halfway around the world? Think nuclear weapons, a rogue intelligence agency, extensive terrorist connections (even within the government), intense animosity toward other countries (including USA) and anger over the GWOT ... Throw in a suddenly unstable government, and what have you got? Better not to think about that one, eh what?

Have no fear; the wheels of stability are turning quickly. The General-President has met with his legal experts [...] as for the main point at issue, whether he will be allowed to rig the upcoming election as a General as well as incumbent President, the General-President says he'll settle this himself.
Sure, he will. I'm sure he will settle everything!

Carlotta Gall is apparently thinking the same thing, for her most recent report, in the International Herald Tribune, starts this way:
Thousands of lawyers and supporters of political parties demonstrated peacefully against government curbs on the news media on Thursday, as senior military and intelligence officials presented affidavits to the Supreme Court in the case against the country's suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

The political crisis stirred up by the suspension of Chaudhry in March is showing no signs of abating. Diplomats and journalists reported that General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, and his immediate circle are showing signs of despondency, even dismay.
... and ends like this:
General Musharraf showed exasperation at a meeting Wednesday with senior members of the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, according to the Pakistani daily newspaper The News. It described the president as looking shaken and telling an audience of 150 members of parliament, ministers and senators: "I feel disturbed for the first time."

The president berated members of his party for not offering him more public support, the paper reported. "I see the party nowhere," he was quoted as saying. "You are not mobilized. You are not delivering. You have lost the war of nerves. You are all silent upon what the media is doing. If I myself have to do everything, then you are for what purpose?" He urged his party to go on a public opinion offensive and to take on the opposition on every issue.

Many members of the ruling party have been trying to distance themselves from the most controversial of General Musharraf's recent actions, in particular those against the chief justice and the news media, which they regard as politically damaging.
For many more details see the rest of Carlotta Gall's report, possibly followed by this from The News, and either or both of these two reports from Dawn.