PAKISTAN: Criticism over closure of newspaper mounts

ISLAMABAD, 25 June (IRIN) - Criticism of the recent closure of the Urdu-language daily newspaper Mohasib continued to mount when the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan described the incident as "another black mark" on freedom of the press in the country.

"This closure is illegal," the chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Afrasiyab Khattak, told IRIN. "This was an administrative order taken in an effort to appease extremist elements in the country that alleged the paper had committed blasphemy."

Khattak warned that if the government continued to give in to such groups, no newspaper would feel safe, as allegations of blasphemy could be brought against any journal or newspaper - without legal recourse. "This is a definite deterioration of press freedom in this country," he said.

Authorities in the city of Abbottabad in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), closed down the regional daily Mohasib on 5 June, following publication of an article on 29 May entitled "The Beard and Islam".

According to the Pakistan daily 'The News' on 16 June, the article criticised the position of some Pakistani fundamentalists who affirm that a man without a beard cannot be a good Muslim. It also criticised the role of religious leaders who used religion to serve their personal interests.

On 8 June, various Islamic organisations held demonstrations against the article, demanding that its author and editors be put to death. Following these protests, the police formally arrested the journalists and charged them under the blasphemy law.

Khattak's criticism on Wednesday follows similar comments from Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a Paris-based journalists' organisation, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), both of which condemned the closure, and called for the immediate release of the four journalists being held.

In a letter to the NWFP governor, RSF General Secretary Robert Menard said: "After the Frontier Post [an English-language newspaper closed in January under the same pretext], the law on blasphemy is yet again being used to close a newspaper." Echoing Khattak's sentiments, he warned if local and federal authorities gave way so easily to the pressures of fundamentalists, freedom of expression would quickly change in the region.

In a letter to Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, on 14 June, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said: "As an organisation dedicated to the defence of press freedom around the world, CPJ is concerned that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are being used to restrict press freedom. In the past, Your Excellency has rightly sought to amend these laws to make them less prone to abuse, and we encourage you to revisit this issue."

Calling for the immediate release of the four journalists being held, RSF researcher for the Asia desk in Paris, Vincent Brossel, told IRIN that the families of the journalists being held were very concerned for their welfare. He added that local journalists who had supported the men had also been threatened. "Blasphemy remains a big issue in Pakistan, as people can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment," Brossel said. He explained that it was not just an issue of freedom of the press, because it also affected religious minority groups in the country.

Meanwhile, Khattak rejected claims that, given the paper's marginal size, the incident did not merit much attention. While 'Mohasib' is a small local paper, Khattak maintained, "the question is not the size of the paper, but the attitude of the state towards press freedom". He added it would be difficult for such a paper to financially recover from this closure.

The closure of Mohasib follows the January arrests of editors of the English-language Frontier Post in the western city of Peshawar, and its sister Urdu-language daily Maidan. Both cases were based on blasphemy charges, following the papers' publication of a letter to the editor entitled "Why Muslims hate Jews", which included derogatory references to the Prophet Mohammad.

This item is delivered in the "asia-english" service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.