'Hand Over Your Broadcast Equipment': Pakistan Stifles Media, Cuts Phone Lines

As Pakistanis awoke Sunday to a strict new political reality, the most visible sign of emergency rule was the harsh clampdown on the private media.

Pakistan's Electronic Media Regulating Authority (PEMRA) issued an order that bans the media from making any reports "that defame or bring into ridicule" President Pervez Musharraf, his administration or the military.

Any editor who violates the order can face up to a year in jail or a 5 million rupee fine ($83,000).

In a speech to the nation on Saturday night, Musharraf said he invoked emergency powers in a bid to control a pro-Taliban insurgency that's spinning out of control here. But immediate actions by his government instead appeared to target the media, opposition politicians and the judiciary.

About half a dozen judges were arrested after they refused to take oath under his new regime. Meanwhile scores of human rights activists, lawyers and pro-democracy agitators were put under house arrest, according to local news reports.

Editors at local television channels and newspapers said their phone lines had been cut, their broadcasts interfered, and one station got raided overnight by about two dozen armed cops, who tried to make away with their broadcasting equipment.

"A magistrate arrived at our bureau with about 24 police, all of them armed, and he told me, 'You need to hand over your broadcast equipment to us'," said Talat Hussein, the head of news at Aaj Television. "I said, 'Under what laws?'"

The magistrate then replied, "We can do this the right way or we will do it our way," Hussein said.

Local media soon flocked to the Aaj Bureau and surrounded the entrance, preventing the police from removing any equipment. Hussein said the station moved its satellite truck to an undisclosed location and continued to broadcast uninterrupted.

Most private Pakistani channels actually broadcast from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, so as not to fall victim to government interference here.

PEMRA officials had come by an inspected uplink facilities at local networks the day before emergency rule was imposed, editors at several stations said. For hours after Musharraf invoked emergency powers, it appeared PEMRA was beaming out a signal to interfere with each of their broadcasts, according to local editors.

Most major local channels here, including the GEO network and Dawn Television, were streaming live on their Web sites. Many never lost programming. GEO's service went down temporarily on Sunday, the Web site said, because of "enormously heavy traffic."

Pakistanis remained glued to their radios and those with access watched the news on satellite channels. "Gen. Musharraf's Second Coup," screamed a headline in the widely-read Dawn Newspaper.

As of midday Sunday, telephone lines and Blackberry PDAs were still jammed in certain parts of the capital and internet service flickered on and off.

"It's been a nightmare," said Zaffar Abbass, the Islamabad editor for the Dawn News Group, which also runs an English language news program. "Luckily we had some Thuraya [satellite] phones and some unlisted numbers or we would not have been able to function."

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a swift condemnation of the clampdown.

"President Musharraf's actions are taking Pakistan in exactly the wrong direction at a time when Pakistanis need more, not less, information. His new media regulations following his suspension of the Constitution allow for no critical coverage of government officials," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "For years, President Musharraf bragged about allowing a free and open media in the country. Now is the time for him to uphold those principles, not throw them into an authoritarian dust bin."

Foreign governments also criticized the move towards autocratic rule.

"The U.S. has made clear it does not support extra-constitutional measures because those measures take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

Pakistani journalists meanwhile, vowed to keep broadcasting the news to this nation of 160 million.

"We will stay on the air," said Hussein. "This won't stop us."

He noted that while the government had put rigorous controls on the private -- and mainly moderate -- media, a pro-Taliban cleric in Pakistan's northwest has been allowed to continue broadcasting on his illegal FM station.

Forces loyal to Maulana Fazlullah, a radical "shock jock" known popularly as the FM Maulana, have been battling the Pakistani military in the restive Swat Valley. More than 100 have died so far in fighting and in attacks by the insurgents.

On Sunday came word that the Taliban had taken over three districts of Swat, and that soldiers with the paramilitary frontier corps were refusing to fight them. The FM Maulana's station, locals said, was still on the air.