How BBC Urdu got the inside story on emergency rule in Pakistan

is an Urdu media analyst with BBC Monitoring

The government of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced its intention to prosecute the former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf for suspending the constitution and putting the country under emergency rule. A three-member panel of judges has been constituted for this purpose.

In November 2007, General Musharraf promulgated a provisional constitutional order to stop a panel of Supreme Court judges from blocking his bid for re-election as a civilian president. Consequently, a large number of superior court judges were dismissed and put under house arrest. Sajid Iqbal, who was then a desk editor with the BBC’s Urdu team in Islamabad, recalls how the World Service tapped into a valuable inside source:


A lawyer is arrested in Lahore during protests against emergency rule in Pakistan, 2007

Four days after the state of emergency was declared, I bumped into Shahzad Malik, our reporter covering the Supreme Court, on the office stairs. I was surprised to see him as it was his day off. He told me he had received a call from the wife of one of the incarcerated judges, who wanted to inform the media about the "intolerable hygienic conditions" inside the judges’ compound.

The main purpose of his unscheduled visit to the office was to record an interview with the woman, who, he told me, was a teacher at a local university. "She doesn't want to be quoted, and I intend to have her on tape only as a matter of record," he told me, seeking my advice and support on the matter.

"Can we go and meet her face to face instead of calling her on her mobile?" I asked my colleague.

After Shahzad’s conversation with the woman it transpired that she was teaching at the National University of Modern Languages, an army-run institution. The good news was that the she was ready to meet us.

She came to welcome us at the university’s main entrance. This saved us from entering our names on the register and leaving our ID cards with the security staff. The next task was to find somewhere secure to sit and talk.

She investigated various classrooms but none was vacant. At last she decided to take us upstairs to the library. University rules forbade us from taking our bags inside, but we couldn't afford to leave them, packed with recording equipment, at the library reception.

After some polite arguments the woman succeeded in getting us and our bags through. We found a quiet corner and began our interview.

"You are welcome to record our conversation but please don't use my voice on radio as it will further restrict my movements. Spooks already follow me from the compound to the university gate," she told us as my colleague took out his microphone.

"In that case we are not recording your voice at all. We will be using our conversation as unattributed background material," I assured her. This immediately made our discussion more relaxed.

As agreed, in the story we published on the same day, we described her as a member of a judge's family living in a judicial compound; it was a rare peak into the life of the judges who had refused to take their oath under the state of emergency.

"Scores of intelligence officials are outside the residence of each rebel judge, and members of the judges’ families have to go through strict security checks," our interviewee was quoted as saying.

We gave the names of the judges living in the compound on their own. "Some of the judges refusing to take the oath under provisional constitutional order (PCO) are living as if they were in solitary confinement. They are in complete incommunicado as their telephone landlines have been cut and the signals to their mobile phones jammed," our report revealed.

We also reported how the authorities had stopped collecting refuse from the houses of rebel judges, resulting in mountains of foul-smelling rubbish bags outside their homes.

"On the other hand, compliant judges are being given all possible facilities. They go out shopping, and all their guests and visitors are allowed in without any fuss," the family member was quoted as saying. We also mentioned the new satellite dish installed on the house of PCO judges to keep them informed and entertained.

The report was carried by a number of local newspapers. By sticking to the agreed terms of the interview we cemented our bond with the woman, who was a credible source. Now we had a direct link to the judges who were forced to remain inside their residences, which gave us an edge on the local media.

Despite all the government effort to sever the judges’ links with the outside world, we were regularly getting exclusive phone interviews with the rebels. However, these interviews were proving costly to the judges themselves, as the security agencies didn’t just block their SIM cards but rendered their handsets unusable.

In March 2008, the Pakistan People's Party emerged as the single largest party, and the then newly elected prime minister Yusuf Raza Gillani lifted the restriction imposed by the Musharraf regime. We went to the judges' compound and saw some of those we had managed to interview under the state of emergency. Introducing us to some of his colleagues at his residence, Justice Raza Khan (now retired) said: "Offer them some sweets. They are the silent soldiers of the movement against the emergency."

Image by Associated Press


Other College of Journalism blogs by Sajid Iqbal

BBC College of Journalism's Urdu website

How BBC Urdu reported the story in 2007