Well-known Pakistani blogger, influential Twitter user and TV host Raza Rumi was attacked on March 28 in Lahore on his way home by a spray of gunfire. Although Rumi escaped with only a minor injury, his 25-year old driver was killed. His guard was also seriously injured.
Rumi, a one-time contributor to Global Voices, was on the Taliban’s hit list because he opposed the government’s peace talks with the militant group and his moderate views were taken as anti-Islamic.
Global Voices recently talked with Rumi about the terrifying experience and the precarious situation of journalists in Pakistan.
Global Voices (GV): Did you receive threats prior to the attack?
Raza Rumi (RR): Yes, I had received threats in two or three forms. There were lot of threats given on social media on Facebook and Twitter- certain threats on Facebook were very graphic. They were sighting various texts saying, “People like you who are secular are anti-Islam and need to be eliminated-they have to be killed”. And there were couple of death threats on Twitter even last year, and I used to report them also. But the problem with social media is that they would immediately deactivate or delete their accounts or these account are anonymous.
I also got indirect threats on my TV show on Capital TV. There were live callers who were always insinuating or hinting that whatever I was saying was offensive and wrong about the Taliban and I will have to face consequences. Then in January-February, the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] issued a list of people who are in their so called hit list and my name was also there. I tried to ask around whether these threats are credible and I got mixed views. Some people said, it is just to scare you and don’t take it seriously. And then off course the Express media group I joined in January had already suffered a few attacks. They also received faxes and threat letters in which I was also mentioned.
GV: Did you report the threats to authorities? Did you get any response?
RR: You can report these threats to Pakistani authorities but fact of the matter is, nothing happens. Frankly one has such low faith in the ability of our authorities to do something. But I did alert them and told them about the threats I was getting – by and large I thought, let me take it in my stride and god will save me. But obviously I was wrong, and it finally happened to me. When I heard the sounds of bullets, I knew they had come for me. My mind suddenly picked up the signal and I immediately hid myself and laid down on the floor of the car. The bullets were crossing over me. The fired from the sides, from the back and front of the car, and I could hear the bullets. In fact, they had done their job; luckily I survived. My faith in miracles has been revived after this incident.
GV: Did you inform your employer, the Express media group, about the threats?
RR: Yes, I did. I made the first call to my colleague in the Express when I was attacked. I told the chief executive officer and they came around and did all they could. I informed the Express group even earlier about these threats and they advised me to be soft, not to be too hard on the extremists (Taliban). I wouldn’t call it censorship – they were advising caution and change of tone. In all fairness I would admit that I did act on their advice.
GV: You discontinued your TV show following the attack. Was it your personal decision or were you advised to do so by your employer?
RR: Initially I took a break as it was getting stressful for me. I was traumatized by this incident. There was trauma, there was paranoia and above all there were threats. After the attack, I was locked in my house for ten days. Police had told me not to move without security. I was also cautious after the horrific death of my 25-year-old driver and injuries to the other person. I didn’t want any human being to be harmed on my account. I recently realized that I was doing it for myself because the state was not doing much for my security. All security experts were unanimous of the view that the attackers had missed their target and they would come back to strike again. What choice do I have? I had to go out of Pakistan to regain my sanity – I was going bonkers. Now I have been away and it is logistically difficult to do these shows from abroad.
RR: I fully hope and pray that the government shows that kind of resolve and ability, but judging the track record of our criminal justice system, I am not very hopeful. The police have said that these people are from a banned militant outfit and that banned organisation is well known for its ability to muzzle the process of justice in Pakistan. But I want to press hard and hard that the killers of my 25-year-old driver Mustafa and his family should get justice.
GV: According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the situation of journalists in Pakistan has deteriorated. A total of 34 journalists have been killed in response to their work since democracy was restored in 2008. Since Nawaz Sharif took over in June 2013, at least eight journalists have been killed in the line of duty. What is your take on this?
RR: It shows that the civilian governments are not fully in charge of the country’s security policy. Because the policy requires doing something about the very powerful non-state actors. According to the police, I may have been attacked by one of those non-state actors. Firstly, this situation would only improve if federal or provincial government would have a clear policy of what to do with these banned organisations.
Secondly, it’s the seventh year that civilians have been in charge but the civilians have not made an effort to reform the police system, or the civil service or even bring back the local government system. What that essentially means is that they have contributed to the existing state of lawlessness and insecurity. It is not just for journalists – the ordinary people are vulnerable. But most journalists are vulnerable because they face two kind of threats – state and non-state. Sadly, the two governments haven’t done much about the safety and security of journalists.
The case of Saleem Shahzad is instructive. He was killed in 2011. He was picked up from the capital and later his body was found. The then government set up a commission and it took ages and ultimately the report came out and it didn’t say much. It is time for the political parties to take lead. As almost all the political parties of Pakistan are sharing power in the provinces, if they wouldn’t do enough for the media freedom then their own democratic future is uncertain.
GV: What role can media houses play to bring security and safety to journalists?
RR: We keep on blaming the ISI [government spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence] and state authorities but the question is – are these big powerful corporate entities playing the kind of role they ought to play? They don’t equip their staffers when they go out in the war zone or to cover a blast scene. They don’t even give them health insurance. And they are not uniting to fight against the common enemy. Their personal and corporate rivalries outweigh journalists’ security.
GV: What is the future of journalism in Pakistan?
RR: The future is going to be full of danger until we have the media houses waking up. The future of security of journalists is linked to the security of ordinary Pakistanis.