By Meena Memon
April 1, 2014
While the Pakistan government is planning to set up a media commission and repeatedly talks of the safety of journalists, mere assurances cannot set things right.
After the vicious gun attack on his car in Lahore on March 28, columnist and anchor Raza Rumi tweeted that he was “dreading this day.” Mr. Rumi narrowly escaped with a minor injury but his driver Mustafa died in the attack. A little over three weeks before this incident, journalist Ibrar Tanoli, who was also travelling in his car, was shot at in Mansehra in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He later died in hospital. The incident sparked the usual outrage and protests as was seen after the attack on Mr. Rumi, along with the usual platitudes from the government.
Mr. Rumi’s well-publicised TV show “Khabar se Aage” discussed and criticised in no uncertain measure the Taliban and obscurantism. Express News has been under fire from the so-called unidentified gunmen, almost a euphemism for terrorists, since last year. Bombs have exploded outside its office in Karachi and terrorists have fired at it twice. In a brazen attack in January this year, three of its staffers were shot dead by gunmen using silencers, an attack claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The menacing tone of these attacks and the fatalities prompted the group’s paper to go easy on criticism against the terrorist groups, much to the chagrin of its outspoken columnists. The Express Tribune’s partnership with The International New York Times could be another reason for the constant threats. Recently an article by Carlotta Gall on Osama Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan was blanked out in the Times’ Pakistan edition.
Assurance of safety
A week before the attack on Mr. Rumi, which seemed rather well planned with the gunmen waiting for him on his route, Kati Marton, trustee of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and was appreciative of his willingness to listen to the problems of journalists working in Pakistan. The CPJ team asked him to review the expulsion of The New York Timescorrespondent Declan Walsh and also expedite visas for foreign journalists. Mr. Sharif was willing and also committed to making the country a safe place for journalists. Ms Marton also thanked him for tracking down the killers of journalist Wali Khan Babar. While that is a milestone of sorts, the killers of other journalists are yet to be traced. Even the mysterious men who attacked the Express Newsofficehave faded into the shadows. The TTP owned up for the January attack and has publicised its unease with the media group’s liberal approach. On a live show on Express TV, a TTP spokesperson managed to extract an assurance from the TV anchor that the coverage would be balanced. The hapless anchor in turn demanded protection for his colleagues. Last year the TTP also made public a hit-list of media houses and journalists on its website, and after the attack on Mr. Rumi, initial TV reports of the incident pointlessly focused almost exclusively on whether he was on this list or not.
The CPJ says Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Even while the killers of Mr. Babar were convicted recently, CPJ notes that Pakistan has one of the world’s worst records of impunity in anti-press violence. “This perfect record of impunity has fostered an ever-more violent climate for journalists. Fatalities have jumped in the past five years, and today, Pakistan ranks among the world’s deadliest nations for the press,” CPJ’s 2013 report points out. It added that the targeted killings of two journalists — Mr. Babar in Karachi and Mukarram Khan Atif in 2012 near his home in Shabqadar — illustrate the culture of manipulation, intimidation, and retribution that has led to this killing spree.
Since 1992, 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan. This year the country shares the number one position with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Mexico and Ukraine for the maximum number of deaths of journalists. Although some journalists have died in suicide bombings or other conflict-related circumstances in the country, at least 23 have been targeted for murder in the past decade. Mr. Atif’s death was claimed by the TTP, which had warned him against writing “one-sided stories” against the outfit. Author and journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times Online was killed a few months after the release of his investigative book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11 in 2011. Many others including celebrities and journalists have been intimidated and tortured — Ali Chisti, a contributor to The Friday Times, who was abducted and tortured and who threatened to leave Karachi last year, is a case in point.
On March 1, an anti-terrorism court sentenced two people to death and awarded life imprisonment to four others for killing Mr. Babar. The course of the trial saw eight persons including two witnesses and a prosecutor being killed. Two other accused are still absconding. This was the first conviction for a journalist’s death after Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was convicted of Daniel Pearl’s murder.
While the government is planning to set up a media commission and repeatedly talks of the safety of journalists, mere assurances cannot set things right. Mr. Sharif’s commitment to make Pakistan a secure place for the media is a welcome move. In a democracy, a free media must be guaranteed and the right of journalists to report critically has to be respected. They cannot be subjected to intimidation, torture or be murdered for doing their job.
In Pakistan, as in other countries, while the messenger is shot, we cannot afford to have the message silenced.