(Courtesy Associated Press)ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The government's intolerance of public dissent isn't easing ahead of next month's parliamentary elections, with TV executives warned they could go to jail and pay fines if they give the president's critics a live forum.
Pakistan's regulators ordered all satellite television channels "to stop airing such live programs, talk shows and contents immediately," according to a copy of a letter Tuesday obtained by The Associated Press.
The regulators warn the channels could be taken off the air, and those responsible — the network's license holder or its representative — could face up to three years in jail and fines of up to $170,000.
Journalists responded Wednesday by accusing the state media regulator of trying to restrict their coverage of the Jan. 8 elections. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, or PFUJ, called it "an attempt to silence the free media."
Information Minister Nisar Memon denies any censorship, saying the independent channels must show they are responsible by not stirring up political tensions.
"Every one of us in Pakistan should share the responsibility and work for betterment of the country by keeping the environment conducive for the polls," Memon said.
Still, networks likely will comply with the threat and avoid giving live coverage of fiery speeches of opposition leaders such as Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, the two former prime ministers who returned in recent months from years of living in exile.
The media regulator is telling networks to install time-delay equipment to prevent violations of its orders.
Both Bhutto and Sharif have hit the campaign trail this week, vowing to do all they can to curtail Musharraf's clout. They backed off from threats to boycott the elections, despite concerns the vote will be rigged, because they do not want to leave the field open to Musharraf supporters.
Addressing hundreds of backers near the eastern city of Sialkot, Sharif urged people to reject candidates from the pro-Musharraf ruling party and said the elections would prove to be a "final blow to the crumbling wall of Musharraf's government."
"I want to eliminate dictatorship, and I cannot achieve this goal without your support," Sharif said.
Bhutto repeated accusations that Musharraf will use police, the judiciary and administration functionaries to cheat. She urged them not to comply.
"You should be accountable to your conscience and to Allah almighty," she told about 1,500 supporters in Pabbi, 15 miles east of Peshawar. "You should not indulge in any rigging for this cruel government. Don't back those who are indulging in oppression against the people of this country."
The media crackdown adds to concerns on whether the elections can be free and fair and restore democracy after eight years of military-dominated rule under Musharraf.
When Musharraf imposed emergency rule Nov. 3, he rounded up opponents, purged top judges who could have derailed his re-election, and cracked down on independent media.
The government outlawed live coverage of incidents of violence and anything considered defamatory of the president, armed forces and state organs. It also made independent networks that have mushroomed under Musharraf's rule sign a "code of conduct" so they could broadcast again.
Musharraf, who last month resigned his position as army chief, says he will lift the emergency rule this weekend, but it appears his media curbs will remain in effect.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was troubled by evidence of pressure on TV news channels in the run-up to the elections.
"We call on the Musharraf government to cease intimidation of the broadcast media and allow full independent coverage of the political situation in Pakistan," said Bob Dietz, the committee's Asia program coordinator.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad, Matthew Pennington and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.