Thousands of Pakistanis mark ‘black day’ over media curbs


Islamabad : Thousands of Pakistani opposition activists, lawyers and journalists observed a "black day" Thursday with nationwide protests against the imposition of rigorous curbs on broadcasters by President Pervez Musharraf.

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Despite the government's decision late Wednesday to stay its enforcement of the measures, large crowds that rallied in major cities also demanded the resignation of the military ruler.

In Karachi, a long procession of people wearing black armbands and chanting "We want freedom" marched to the Governor House. Some 6,000 more staged a sit-in protest by the provincial assembly in Lahore, chanting "go Musharraf, go".

Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a coup in 1999, on Monday issued a decree that empowers state regulators to seize equipment, seal premises and suspend licences of broadcasters.

The move was condemned as crude censorship amid the growing political uproar over the president's suspension in March of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry for alleged misconduct.

"The presidential order is in violation with basic human rights and therefore unacceptable," Mushtaq Minhas, the president of the Islamabad Union of Journalists, told a rally of media workers in the capital.

As on previous occasions, the demonstrations swelled with the addition of opposition supporters.

"We strongly condemn the crackdown on the press, which is unconstitutional and illegal," Farid Paracha from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) religious alliance said at a gathering at the parliament building.

In a statement issued overnight, the government said it had referred the ordinance to a six-member committee for review.

However, the move failed to impress journalists' organisations, which said they would continue their protests until the restrictions are withdrawn.

Pakistan's journalists have received messages of support from colleagues around the world.

The International Federation of Journalists on Wednesday said Musharraf should be shown that "blatant disregard for basic human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law will not be tolerated".

The US State Department and the European Union also expressed concern at the media clampdown in a key election year for Pakistan. Musharraf, who is a key US ally in the war against terrorism, will seek another five-year term from parliament in October.

"We are concerned by recent setbacks with regard to media freedom," heads of EU missions in Islamabad and the European Commission said in a statement Thursday.

A day earlier, Musharraf blasted the country's ruling coalition for abandoning him during the crisis around Chaudhry's suspension and other emergencies.

"I bluntly say that you always leave me alone in time of trial and tribulation," Pakistan's The News quoted him as saying Wednesday at a parliamentary meeting of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q), which is his political power base, and smaller parties in the coalition.

"You are not delivering. You have lost the war of nerves," said the increasingly embattled leader.

Beyond the judicial crisis, Musharraf faces the steady Talibanisation of Pakistan by Islamic militants, the continuing separatist conflict in Balochistan province and acute energy shortages.

According to insiders attending the meeting in Islamabad, he looked "visibly shaken" but remained defiant toward his challengers, saying the country would be in deep crisis without him.

"You do not know the problems for Pakistan if I am left out," he said, warning that the Taliban would no longer just plague the provinces but emerge strongly in main cities like Karachi and Lahore.