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Pakistani Government Cuts Off Newsprint After Critical Coverage

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

The government and War are doing battle in Pakistan.

After brewing behind the scenes for months, an all-out conflict between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government and the nation's largest newspaper chain the Jang Group, whose name translates as "War" has brought legal challenges to the courts, protesting journalists to the streets and fewer pages to the chain's widely circulated dailies.

At stake, says the government, are tens of millions of dollars that the Jang Group is said to owe in back income taxes and unpaid customs duties on imported newsprint. Jang, which denies cheating the government, has warned that the confrontation threatens press freedom in Pakistan's unsteady democracy and, in particular, Jang's English-language paper, the News, known for its aggressive investigations of official corruption.

Since democracy was restored here a decade ago, Pakistan's press generally has enjoyed a degree of freedom unknown during the periods of military rule that have encompassed about half of the 51 years since the country's creation. The showdown during the last few weeks reflects a resurgence of government practices left over from the era of martial law, when dictators routinely censored and cowed newspapers that challenged them.

The Sharif government has reduced the supply of newsprint to Jang to a trickle, shrinking editions on some days to as few as four pages and threatening to interrupt publication. The government-imposed stranglehold on Jang's newsprint is reminiscent of the last military dictator, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who established the government's right to control the flow of newsprint all of which is imported and then used the system to reward friendly publications and punish critics.

In addition, a close aide to Sharif has also demanded that Jang publisher Shakilur Rehman make personnel changes and revise editorial policy to support the government's imposition of martial law in Karachi, the nation's largest city, to control ethnic violence.

The News has published excerpts of a secretly made audiotape in which Saifur Rehman Khan, Sharif's anti-corruption chief, appeared to demand that Shakilur Rehman dismiss more than a dozen journalists because of their roles in unfavorable coverage of the government.

Among the targets were News editor Maleeha Lodhi, who was ambassador to Washington under former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and News investigative reporter Kamran Khan, who is also a special correspondent for The Washington Post. Both journalists said that intelligence agents monitored their homes last week.

The Jang Group publishes six newspapers and a magazine. The daily Jang in Urdu, the national language, is the nation's best-selling newspaper, with a circulation of 1 million. The News claims the second-largest circulation in English, after Dawn, which leans toward the political establishment.

Saifur Rehman Khan denied in a recent interview that he had pressed publisher Rehman to dismiss any journalists but did acknowledge urging him to demote "a few people who are in important positions and are always trying to misreport things."

He also admitted demanding that the publisher endorse martial law and military courts in Karachi.