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Office of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR)

Officially, the Office of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) closely controls and coordinates release of military news and access to military sources. The press has traditionally avoided negative coverage of the armed forces, and the ISPR has served to hold press coverage of military matters under close restraint. Leaks, while not uncommon, are carefully managed: it is common knowledge that journalists, routinely underpaid, are on the unofficial payrolls of many competing interests, and the military (or elements within it) is presumed to be no exception. Rumors of intimidation, heavy-handed surveillance, and even legal action to quiet the unduly curious or nondeferential reporter are common.

The competitive nature of Pakistani politics helps to ensure press freedom, since the media often serve as a forum for political parties, commercial, religious, and various other interests, as well as influential individuals, to compete with and criticize each other publicly. Although the press does not criticize Islam as such, leaders of religious parties and movements are not exempt from the public scrutiny and criticism routinely experienced by their secular counterparts.

This pattern of control and restraint has loosened somewhat. Early in 1997 -- after an election in which corruption in high places was the principal issue -- the press published charges of corruption and misuse of office against senior navy and air force officers and the navy chief was forced to resign. In the summer, the deaths of several air force cadets while undergoing training prompted newspaper reports of brutal training officers and procedures, and those found responsible were held to public account.

Detailed public discussion of the military as an institution is severely hampered since any published discussion, let alone criticism, of the defense budget is proscribed by law. However, late in 1997 this code of silence was undermined when a National Assembly committee, by discussing defense appropriations and corruption in defense contracts in an open session, made possible (and legal) newspaper coverage of the same issues.

In a case followed closely by the press and human rights groups, journalist Humayun Fur, bureau chief of the Urdu daily Mashriq, was arrested by intelligence agency operatives on 28 June 1997 and imprisoned on charges of "anti-State activities." Fur was found guilty by a military court in September and sentenced to 5 years' imprisonment. A handout issued by the Defense Ministry stated that the court convicted Fur of espionage for passing sensitive state secrets to personnel from a "foreign diplomatic mission" in Islamabad (two Indian High Commission staff members were expelled in connection with the case in September). Human rights groups expressed concern that Fur was tried by a military court and urged that he be retried in an open court under civil law. The press reported that Fur was only the second journalist in the country's history to be tried by court martial. Fur was released in October after the chief of army staff remitted the unserved portion of his sentence on humanitarian grounds because of Fur's ill-health.

Sources and Methods



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Updated Sunday, May 24, 1998 7:46:48 AM