March 30, 2014
THE motive for attacking Raza Rumi, a liberal and outspoken national commentator on politics and society, is relatively easy to guess: it was meant to silence his voice forever and to send a message to anyone else espousing similar views in the public sphere. For the media as a whole, the attack in Lahore on Mr Rumi, in which a driver lost his life and a guard was injured, is yet another ominous sign that the pressure building on the media may be about to reach the point of explosion. While individuals, including Mr Rumi, have been named in militant hit lists, the signs are that something far bigger and terrible in scale and impact against the media may be imminent. Quite what that may be is difficult to know, but the lethality and ferocity of the militants and their willingness to kill and intimidate must never be underestimated.
The challenge really is for the media now to band together and figure out an effective strategy to counter the militants’ pressure. The Express Media Group, which had been targeted four times, tried the tactic of muting any criticism of the TTP and sundry militant groups after three of its employees were killed in January, but that has clearly not worked. In truth, there is little individual media houses or under-threat journalists can do on their own to ensure the safety of all who work in their organisations. However, collectively there is much that can be done — if owners, editors and heads of news channels sit down together and urgently work out both a set of demands and recommendations. The state is not entirely powerless and the militant groups are aware of the power of the media to inform the public and shape national discourse — which means a united front by the media can help win back the space that has been eroded for an independent and free media to operate in. The stakes could not be higher. A democratic polity in which the rule of law, civil society and democratic institutions dominate is only possible when the media is free to inform and act as a watchdog. Whatever the flaws of the media, surely a frightened and intimidated community of journalists is a disservice to everyone.