The brutal attack on Ahmad Noorani, a well-regarded journalist working for The News, in Islamabad last month that left him with serious head injuries has shocked everyone. In the same month three journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) were kidnapped, and remained missing for a few days before returning but refused to talk about their ordeals to the media. Privately, they reveal horrors of their tribulations that are hair-raising. All have been asked to simply censor themselves or stop working. Or else.
In October senior journalists including, but not limited to, Talat Hussain, Mujeebur Rehman Shami and Matiullah Jan have been either purposefully but unfairly vilified, simply forced-stopped from working or physically attacked. In Balochistan the entire body of media practitioners in the province has been formally declared as ‘legitimate targets’ in the cross-hairs of banned militant groups who have also enforced a blanket blackout on print media from being distributed or circulated.
Again, in the same month, several online information practitioners in the business of sharing news, views and opinions have faced the wrath of the same objective of being intimidated or simply silenced. These have included citizen journalists who have been arrested by FIA and charged with bringing the military and judiciary into ‘disrepute’, even including activists of the ruling party who were abducted, and others charged with blasphemy.
These October 2017 incidents are not isolated cases. They are part of a larger phenomenon in the works for some years in the practice of journalism in Pakistan, whether in the formal media sector or in the larger context of citizen information practice through social media.
Over 120 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan in the line of duty since January 2000, according to Pakistani media rights watchdog Freedom Network. Of these at least 78 were target killed — all shot at point-blank range for their journalism work. The rest died in terrorist acts in public places being covered by journalists. That’s an incredible average of a journalist killed every 50 days. Of the estimated 20,000 journalists in Pakistan, more than 2,000 have been physically assaulted and injured, kidnapped or received written or verbal threats of significant consequence.
Over 80 have had to be relocated from their station of work within Pakistan to save their lives. Several have left Pakistan to stay alive. The premises of media houses or their bureau offices in several cities and even press clubs have been attacked.
Who wants these journalists and online information practitioners dead, intimidated or silenced, and why?
The first wave of risks and threats against media practitioners in Pakistan escalated after the rapid expansion of the media landscape in 2002. This coincided with the rise of violence, terrorism and extremism in the country and its coverage. The second wave was after the 2013 election amid an upturn in the use of cyberspace and social media after discourse prohibited on mainstream media shifted online.
According to Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) figures, there are three times more internet users now and five times more social media users than there were in 2013 — and still rising fast. A million new users make it online every month.
The corresponding need for media coverage of violence and militancy under the government of Musharraf, and the military operations and counterterrorism efforts under the Zardari and Sharif governments dramatically increased the risks for journalists and put them in harm’s way. In 2014, at least 14 journalists and media workers were killed — the worst year for media in Pakistan.
Political transitions — first from military rule to democratic rule in 2008 and then the first ever transfer of power between elected governments in 2013 and the political chaos in its aftermath in 2014 to date — shifted the nature of risks for journalists and bloggers, but not the scale or quantum of risks. At least 16 journalists and media workers have died since the last elections alone. In the same period there has been an escalation in threats and harm to online media and information activity — at least two citizen journalists have been found guilty of blasphemy, eight were abducted and tortured and another seven are facing charges under the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, which criminalises dissent online.
According to documented and anecdotal testimonials from international media rights watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and national civil liberties groups like Freedom Network, the threat actors against media in Pakistan over the past 15 years have morphed in line with the changing thematic focus from militancy to politics. The first wave of threats emanated from mostly non-state actors and much less from state actors. In the second wave this ratio has alternated — the living victims mostly point an accusatory finger at state actors, including mostly security forces and intelligence agencies but also police and political parties.
Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters attacked, injured and harassed dozens of journalists during their dharna days, on camera. The PTI openly levels allegations of treason against the Jang Group and its editors and often boycotts it, despite the fact that both in the run-up to the 2013 elections and the 123-day dharna, the media group gave it the highest volume of coverage. Even now it beams Imran live whenever he speaks.
But activists of religious and sectarian groups, jihadi organisations focused on India and Afghanistan, and even Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Pakistan Muslim League-N and Pakistan People’s Party have been involved in public intimidation of journalists in some prominent incidents. Banned groups — the non-state actors — in places like Balochistan and Fata have kept the media practitioners under pressure throughout this millennium. The military brooks no open or regular coverage from Fata or large parts from Balochistan. The Hamid Mir and Cyril Almeida cases, which generated global headlines, resulted from the military leadership’s displeasure at perceived violation of the Establishment’s own perception of what media’s role should be.
Vested interest over public interest
The accumulative impact of this multifarious and relentless pressure on media and its practitioners is near-elimination of investigative or public-interest journalism in Pakistan, despite the fact that 85 per cent of the media landscape did not exist 15 years ago, and there is so much scope for it. Extraneous overt, covert and self-imposed censorship has shifted the focus of journalism to the ‘safer domains’ of corporate and ‘national interest’ (as defined by the security establishment) — hence the presence of retired military personnel on virtually every one of the 115 talk shows currently on 47 current affairs tv channels in seven languages every day.
Even politics, agriculture, fashion, education, environment and health themes now generate inputs from these gentlemen.
What is important to note is not just the high numbers of attacks and casualty rates of journalists and social media practitioners killed, injured, kidnapped, intimidated and silenced, but the astronomical levels of impunity of crimes against them. None of the killers of journalists in Pakistan have been punished — only three have been prosecuted and convicted.
The issue of impunity has become a global concern and Pakistan, sadly, finds itself in the group of minority countries that have failed, since 2013 when it was mandated, to report every year to the United Nations with a country report on its progress to combat impunity. The government has also failed, despite promises, to institute a bill on safety of journalists even though model drafts have been handed to it, and despite consensus demands from Pakistan’s 20,000 journalists to establish a special prosecutor’s office to proactively and on a full-time basis investigate the murders of nearly 80 journalists and serious cases like what’s happening in Balochistan and what happened to Noorani. This is such a serious shortcoming that November 2 is now observed by the UN as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Pakistan has failed its journalists this year too.
But perhaps the real failure of Pakistan is the overall inability of the civil society and representative political forces to unequivocally equate attacks on journalists and online information practitioners as attacks on the State itself. If journalists are unsafe, how can media be free? And if media is not free, how can there be democracy in the country? Democracy is not for censoring or silence!