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RSF demands explanation from Punjab, Federal Governments: 3 Arrested

Full of Revenge, Musharraf Attacks Struggling Islamabad Journalist, Shuts Paper

By M T Butt

ISLAMABAD, Sept 2: General Pervez Musharraf hardly forgets and never forgives a journalist who asks him a tough question and embarrasses him publicly. An Islamabad-based journalist who had asked him such a question three years ago has just been reminded of this black side of the General’s personality.

In the latest case, journalist Masood Malik is the target of Musharraf’s unending vengeance. Malik had put Musharraf an honest question when he had returned empty handed from the failed the failed Agra Summit with Vajpayee in 2001.

Why is it General, asked Malik who then worked with the Nation-Nawai Waqt Newspaper Group, owned by the Nizamis, that whenever civilian leaders of India and Pakistan meet they reach an agreement and whenever a military ruler is in power, there is no headway in Indo-Pak talks.

Musharraf was visibly irritated and annoyed by the question and immediately after the press conference the Nizamis were pressurized so much that they first demoted Malik from his position of Chief Reporter and then sacked him from the newspaper.

Masood Malik would not be hired by any other newspaper because all newspaper owners knew that Musharraf did not like the journalist and would retaliate if he was hired. So after two years in wilderness Malik decided to start his own newspaper and completed the paperwork in May 2003 to launch “Islamabad Times” in Urdu language. But he could not do so for financial or other reasons.

When one year elapsed and Malik’s newspaper did not start publication, the local administration recently sent him a letter asking him to start publishing it or the permission would expire. Malik decided to take the plunge and mobilized all his resources to launch the paper on September 6, 2004 the national Defence Day, when Pakistan celebrates or remembers the start of the 1965 war with India, although there was nothing achieved in the war to celebrate.

Musharraf’s intelligence agencies informed the General that Malik was now going to become an Editor and his newspaper will start appearing on news stands within a week. Dummy runs of the paper have started in Rawalpindi’s T.S. Printing Press, he was told.

Unable to forget his embarrassment and displaying the vindictiveness which is the hallmark of small minds, Musharraf ordered that the newspaper should be stopped, no matter what the excuse.

Intelligence goons raided the Printing Press in Rawalpindi on Tuesday, August 31, and asked the press to stop printing. When the printer demanded an explanation, the intelligence men, who brought some police officials with them as well, took away all the newspaper pages and related material leaving the printer no choice.

Masood Malik went to the police but he was told that they had “orders from the top”. Malik held a news conference in Islamabad to condemn the action and waits for an explanation by the administration.

The Information Secretary, Anwar Mahmood, told the BBC Urdu Service that he had no knowledge of the raid on the printer and he was also trying to find out who had ordered the press to stop printing the dummy of “Islamabad Times”.

There have been many such cases when courageous journalists asked direct, though embarrassing questions and paid the price, both career wise and physically.

One such young journalist was Faraz Hashmi of Dawn who had also asked a similar question at a televised Press conference. Just a couple of days later, Hashmi’s car was hit by an Army officer near his office and the Major came out and started throwing punches. He was badly hurt.

When Hashmi went to the police to lodge a report, the police refused to do that. Hashmi persisted and went to the High Court which did order the police to register an FIR. But he continued to receive threats and nothing happened on his report until the BBC offered him a job in London and he moved with his family to UK.

Two similar episodes were encountered by Shaheen Sehbai, the Editor of the South Asia Tribune, when he was senior correspondent of Dawn in September 2000 and as Editor of The News in December of the same year.

Sehbai had asked Musharraf in New York what was he doing about the fugitives, ex-Navy Chief Admiral Mansurul Haq and Amer Lodhi, the businessman brother of the then Pakistan Ambassador to US, Maleeha Lodhi. Musharraf was annoyed and directly attacked Sehbai by asking him to check his facts before writing.

Sehbai retaliated by asking him to state whatever facts he was talking about and do it now. Musharraf was embarrassed as he could not give one single example of misreporting.

The second incident took place in December when at a briefing of editors of major newspapers, Sehbai asked Musharraf why should he be trusted by the nation when previous generals had lied about their political ambitions. Again Musharraf was so irritated he never invited Sehbai to any Editors briefings. In 2002 Sehbai had to leave Pakistan amid a huge controversy.

But when he started his web newspaper from Washington in August 2002, Musharraf’s vindictiveness emerged with full force and distant relatives of Sehbai were harassed, arrested and persecuted by his regime.

That is why, when Musharraf appears before the journalists and writers these days, in closely monitored and secured briefings, no one dares to put him an embarrassing question or no one follows up if he refuses to answer any question. Many journalists are scared of their lives but most of them fear that they will not receive an invitation again.

Now the axe has fallen on the still-born “Islamabad Times” of Masood Malik, even though three years have gone by.

In this latest act of vengeance, new Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz will be the man who will face public embarrassment as he would be helpless in providing justice to the aggrieved journalist and his administration will look like a dummy, trying to silence a newspaper which was still in its embryonic dummy stage.

RSF Condemns

The Paris-based international organization Reporters Without Borders on Friday, Sept 3, issued the following statement on the ban on Islamabad Times:

"Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) called today on the federal government and Punjab provincial authorities to publicly explain why they had banned a new daily paper, the Islamabad Times, before it could bring out its first issue. It demanded the release of its printer, his son and two employees who were arrested.

It said it suspected it was a new move against the editor Masood Malik who had angered President Pervez Musharraf three years ago.

Plainclothes officials went on 31 August to the printing works in Rawalpindi where the Urdu-language paper was being put together for its launch on 6 September and ordered work on it to stop. When printer Malik Abdul Aziz asked why, the officials left and returned with police who arrested the four, closed the works and seized equipment.

Editor Masood Malik told Reporters Without Borders he had obtained all necessary official permission to start the paper. Officials refused to comment on the ban. Malik said he suspected the federal government was involved.

In its 2002 Annual report, Reporters without Borders wrote:

"On 20 July 2001, Masood Malik, chief reporter of the right-wing Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt, was sanctioned by the newspaper's editors only a few hours after asking the Pakistani President a question during a press conference. The journalist asked General Musharraf, who had just returned from the Indo-Pakistani summit in Agra (India), if it wouldn't have been easier for a democratically elected head of state to obtain an agreement with the Indian president. General Musharraf replied by asking the journalist if "he was joking". A few hours later, Masood Malik learned that he had been removed from the newspaper's investigation desk. According to the private newspaper Dawn, this sanction could be due to pressure from the authorities, especially the Press Information Department in charge of regulating the Pakistani press. The Department denied putting pressure on the editors of Nawa-i-Waqt."

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