March 30, 2014
The horrific incident of an attack on Express TV’s anchor Raza Rumi in Lahore on Friday night underlines the precarious condition of security for the media in Pakistan. Two motorcyclists, who Rumi thinks were waiting to ambush his car, opened fire with submachine guns while he was on his way home from work. The hail of bullets killed his driver and wounded his police guard. Fortunately Rumi received only minor cuts and abrasions. Reports say the killers had obviously been carrying out reconnaissance on Rumi’s routine. The media group he works for has had more than its share of unwanted attention from violent elements of late. This attack in Lahore is the fifth on the group since last August. Two attacks on the group’s offices in Karachi last year wounded five people, three of its employees were murdered in cold blood when their TV van was ambushed in Karachi, a bomb planted outside the group’s Peshawar bureau chief’s residence was fortunately disabled, and now this first of its kind attack in Lahore has yielded one death and injuries. The question arises why the group has been targeted in this manner. One explanation on offer is that the media group’s policies have annoyed extremist elements that are now seeking to silence it. Certainly this can be claimed in the case of Raza Rumi without fear of contradiction since he is well known for his outspoken views against the Taliban. Rumi himself did not speculate about the identity of the attackers when speaking to media after the incident, but did point to the reports of a hit list prepared by the Taliban to target media they considered ‘hostile’. Given this background, the cast of usual suspects is headed by the Taliban, specifically the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which ironically is engaged these days in ‘peace’ negotiations with the government. The TTP, as we have repeatedly argued in this space, is playing a tactical game of ostensibly engaging in peace negotiations while ‘sorting out’ some of its perceived enemies, particularly in the media. These actions are not only not claimed by the TTP, they are denied and ascribed to ‘rogue’ or ‘splinter’ groups such as the Ahrarul Hind (claimed to have been responsible for the Islamabad courts complex attack but which some reports say was ordered by the TTP). While the Lahore attack has been roundly condemned by everyone from top to bottom of the government, political parties, traders, lawyers, doctors and other citizens, the journalists’ bodies had resolved to carry out protests on Saturday. Unfortunately, these bodies too have ‘woken up’ late to the threat posed to the media in Pakistan. A number of journalists have been killed over the years, earning Pakistan the dubious title of the most dangerous country in the world. According to Reporters Without Borders, seven journalists were killed in Pakistan over the last year alone. Alarmingly, neither the media industry itself nor the authorities seem to have any plan in mind to protect and secure journalists. Pakistan’s other dubious distinction, despite its lively media, is that it occupies 158th position out of 180 countries in press freedom rankings. This status is owed to pressures from powerful state and non-state actors, both of whom often use muscle when ‘persuasion’ fails to get their way.
It must be admitted though that the terrorist threat is not confined to the media alone. PPP patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has revealed that he has received a threat from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and said if anything happened to him, the Punjab government would be held responsible for its alleged soft attitude towards groups like the LeJ, widely believed to be based in Punjab and enjoying relative freedom of movement and action from there. It is good that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has responded to the report by ordering an investigation into the matter. The Punjab government has faced criticism over the last six years for allegedly allowing sectarian groups like the LeJ safe havens and operational freedom in Punjab, which arguably has fed into their sectarian horrors against the Hazara Shia in Quetta and Shias generally. The greatest illusion regarding groups like the TTP and LeJ is that they would be ‘grateful’ for such concessions, if any, and repay the ‘generosity’ by keeping their ‘base’ peaceful. Any attempt to keep one province an oasis of peace while the rest of the country burns is not something likely to enjoy a long shelf life, thanks to the predilections of the terrorists.