Sharif fights to strangle free speech

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The Independent Online
NIGHT AFTER night on the streets of Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, men armed with sticks and iron bars fight for the freedom of Pakistan's press.

The prize: 200 rolls of newsprint, enough to bring out skeletal editions of the Jang group's newspapers. The enemy is the police. The Supreme Court granted the papers this minimal daily ration of paper; but the police, acting on orders, try to seize the lorries delivering it and drive them away. On 1 February they succeeded.

It is not too melodramatic to describe this as practically the last stand of those who cherish freedom and democracy in Pakistan. Already the other organs keeping the power of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in check have been emasculated: the presidency given to a Sharif family friend, an independent-minded army chief forced to resign. Soon Pakistan's legal system will be run according to Sharia law, and Mr Sharif will be free to do as he pleases.

But the battle for the press is not over yet.

Today the drama switches to the Supreme Court, as it begins hearing an action brought against the government by Jang, alleging infringement of the freedom of the press. It is the company's attempt to fight back against a government campaign to close down the newspapers that has come to a head in the past three weeks.

The head of the government's Accountability Bureau, Senator Saifur Rahman, has given the proprietor of Jang a list of 16 journalists the government wants sacked, and a list of replacements who would be considered acceptable.

But in case Jang fails to take the hint, other forms of pressure are also being applied. The editor of The News, Maleeha Lodhi, who was Pakistan's ambassador to Washington from 1994 to 1997, is tailed by government agents wherever she goes. Since an unidentified car tried to ram her recently, she is now escorted to and from work by colleagues in a van and two cars.

The News does not look like a newspaper which should cause a man as powerful as Mr Sharif to lose much sleep.

The page design is fussy, headlines are small and bland. Anyone expecting the strident certainties of today's British press would find articles which would not look out of place in the Richmond and Twickenham Times - "Exhibition of Traditional Calligraphy", "Policemen Complain of Working Conditions ...".

But beneath its bland exterior and tireless quest for balance, The News has not shrunk from telling the truth about Mr Sharif, his increasingly dictatorial tendencies, and the allegations of financial wrongdoing that have been laid against him.

Last month, the confrontation came to the boil when Mr Sharif's principal enforcer, Senator Rahman, who has been pursuing charges against Benazir Bhutto and her husband, charged the company with massive tax fraud and demanded payment of more than 2bn rupees (pounds 25m) in back taxes.

Jang's proprietor, Mir Shakilur Rehman, went to see the senator to try to persuade him to "stop the victimisation campaign against the press", in Mr Rehman's words, and it was at this meeting that the senator gave the proprietor the list of journalists the government required to be sacked.

Mr Rehman secretly recorded the meeting and played the tape at a press conference. On the tape the senator is clearly heard naming the journalists he wanted fired, and naming three journalists as satisfactory replacements.

In Pakistan, where revenue collection is often used as a pretext for attacking enemies of the government, few took the tax charges against Jang seriously, even before the playing of the tape-recording of the meeting.

Mr Rehman insists, "It is not about tax dues. There are laws and courts in Pakistan to deal with the tax evader.

"We have already filed an appeal against the tax notices in the Income Tax Appelate Tribunal, the highest tax court in Pakistan, and we will accept its verdict."

A plausible explanation for the timing of the government's attack is that Jang was backing a satellite television channel, Geo, which is based in Dubai. While Pakistan's newspapers have been free from government control, radio and television remain a government monopoly.

Some believe that it was fear of uncontrolled news reaching the 70 per cent of Pakistanis who are functionally illiterate that spurred the government into trying to close the group down. Jang's profitable newspapers were the capital base for the satellite station's launch.