Pakistan has never been an easy country for journalists; more than 20 were killed in the last decade and until recently no convictions were forthcoming for those murders. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks Pakistan fifth in the world for countries most dangerous for journalists. Journalists regularly face harassment and intimidation. Threats to their lives are nothing new, though ignoring them can be fatal as the murders of reporters Wali Babar and Saleem Shahzad showed. Given this, the death threats to journalist Imtiaz Alam by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have sparked widespread outrage and condemnation from journalist bodies around the country and highlighted the importance of the media in the fight against terrorism. Mr Alam is the editor of a quarterly publication and a television show host. On Saturday, journalists and media associations issued a statement condemning the threats and at a demonstration on Sunday in Lahore journalists suggested the situation demands boycotting militant-related coverage. The threats to Mr Alam highlight how important controlling the media is to the TTP and how the battle against them is not only playing out in the tribal areas but in our homes and on our television screens. Mr Alam was attacked before in 2009 and is being singled out by the TTP for his stark opposition to their dogma. Threats to his life should also not surprise anyone since the media group that hosts his television programme has been incessantly attacked by militants of late. Another of its television anchors, Raza Rumi, was attacked just last week and in recent months the group had to stop reporting on militancy after the brutal murders of several of its staff and attacks on its offices. In many ways their silence has been as eloquent as their reporting, particularly when half the front page of their foreign franchise paper was censored for carrying a potentially volatile story. Other influential media houses perceived as setting an anti-militant news agenda have also been targeted.
The power of the free media in Pakistan is obvious. The movement against former President General Pervez Musharraf gained enough traction and support in the media that it ultimately forced his resignation. The TTP’s violence against the media shows how propaganda ascendancy is tied closely to their political goals. Hence, turn on the television and often you will see TTP spokespersons issuing statements as though the group is a legitimate political actor with a right to a voice. In this way the TTP hope to acclimatise people to their presence and attain legitimacy through a persistent media presence, which makes journalists who see the TTP as nothing more than a terrorist organisation, and are not afraid to point it out, a threat to them. While protecting journalists is something the government has pledged to do, it was not long ago most journalists considered the government itself a threat to their personal safety — and many still do — for reporting sensitive or damaging stories and exposing corruption. Many journalists in Pakistan can testify first-hand to receiving oblique threats from ‘agency’ personnel warning them to stay away from controversial subjects. However, the government still operates according to a framework in which assassination and murder are preferably avoided. The TTP framework is almost entirely assassination and murder. In the same way they have come to dominate the tribal areas by killing officials and tribal leaders and occupying their vacant positions. Through violence, they aim to create a narrative vacuum that they can then fill. In the mad scramble for ratings and ‘breaking’ news, smaller news channels are willing to publicise militant news to gain an edge on their competitors. This is a dangerous practice and lends strong weight to the argument for boycotting coverage of militants and denying them the publicity they badly want. Journalists in Pakistan are in a unique position to shape the national discourse; the power must be used responsibly now more than ever when the greatest threat to the media is extremist militancy.
This Editorial was published in The Daily Times