South Asia 2007: bloodiest and most difficult for journalists; 25 journalists and media workers killed

NEW DELHI:The year just ended, 2007, was the bloodiest and most difficult year for the journalists in South Asia, according to the South Asia Media Commission.

The journalists and media outlets suffered from horrendous conditions in the conflcit-ridden regions and faced unprecedented restrictions and forced closures in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Twenty journalists and four media workers were killed in South Asia in 2007. Pakistan topped the table with seven deaths followed by Sri Lanka with six and Afghanistan with five killings in the line of duty. Three journalists were killed in Nepal. One media worker in Afghanistan and three media workers lost their lives in India.

Amid debate on sting operations and foreign investment in Indian media, attacks on media freedom from official agencies and non-state actors made the news. The media situation showed disturbing trends — arrogance by the authorities, especially in the states, misplaced enthusiasm to “reform” the media, and intolerance of militant groups, evident in disproportionate, violent reaction to publication of the accounts of their activities, not to their liking.

Three media workers died when protesters set fire to the daily Dinakaran's office in the town of Madurai. The protesters were angry at a survey in the paper which found their leader MK Azhagiri to be less popular than his brother and political rival MK Stalin. The two are sons of veteran politician and state Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. In Hyderabad, the activists of MIM, Majlis Itthadul Muslimen, attacked the chief editor and owner of an Urdu daily, Siasat, which had carried material, critical of a legislator of their party. In Guwahati, ULFA threatened a city-based satellite news channel with closure, in case a report against the organization was not substantiated within a specified period. In Mumbai members of a little known Hindu Rashtrya Sena attacked the Star News headquarters, because the channel had “glorified” the elopement of a Hindu girl with a Muslim boy.

The government announced its plan to regulate broadcast services through an official agency causing a big uproar by media organizations and forcing it to defer it. The media representatives favoured formulation of a code by the profession itself. Self-regulation will be in the interest of the profession and prevent the government from moving against the media on one pretext or the other.

Anti-media moves and threats by non-state players were equally disturbing with both the electronic and the print media being at the receiving end.

In Pakistan, where free media flourished with the vibrant induction of private TV channels, the private electronic media faced worst times with successive draconian amendments made to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance and, later, imposition of an arbitrary media code that took life out of the private TV channels. As the Pervez Musharraf government that took pride in allowing private TV channels panicked over massive public outrage against the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, it clamped down on private electronic media that sympathized with the cause of independence of the judiciary. Faced with the constitutional and judicial hurdles to legitimize sitting army chief’s controversial election as president, the military regime not only once again put the constitution into abeyance and suspended the fundamental rights by imposing a sate of emergency, but also took off the air all news channels and imposed blanket restrictions on free debate and live coverage of events, the Commission report says. The restrictions continue to keep the election campaign of most popular parties at low key. Under the new amendments made to PEMRA and the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance (PNNABRO), the TV owners and journalists can be imprisoned for three years and a fine up to Rs. one million and a publication can be suspended for a month without notice.

A report issued by Commission Chairman N Ram says the journalists suffered immensely in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In Afghanistan - especially in the Pakhtun belt across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan - the journalists had to pay heavily amid the cross-fires of adversaries. They became victim to the guns of not only Taliban-Qaeda extremists, but also of various other forces, including the warlords and IASF. The Afghan authorities also showed short temper in tolerating criticism. Most worrisome was the introduction of illegal FM radio stations promoting hate and violence in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Sri Lanka, as the internecine ethnic conflict grew out of proportion, media persons and outlets became more vulnerable to conflicting pressures. The Government of President Mahinda Rajapakse and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam competed in enforcing restrictions on the media.

However, Nepal and Bangladesh presented a mixed picture due to a difficult and tenuous transition. If the Maldives remained, as usual, a difficult country for journalists since many decades, Bhutan presented a case of healthy but careful opening for media with the advent of constitutional monarchy and introduction of democracy.

The most encouraging feature of 2007 was the valiant resistance put up by the media and the civil society against the curbs on freedom of expression and the right to know in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The bodies of working journalists, in particular, deserve our praise for putting up protracted resistance to the curbs imposed on media. The solidarity expressed by the media community across South Asia and world-wide was worth noting.

The other signatories to the report are Secretary General Najam Sethi, and Regional Coordinator Husain Naqi.

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