Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Writing in blood and sweat – threats faced by journalists in Pakistan

The self-professed ‘most eminent and profound security professional in Pakistan’, Zaid Hamid, last week filed a petition calling for the trial of several journalists and media organisations for high treason. The petition targeted the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), human rights activists, government ministries and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (EMRA). In Hamid’s words, “in these times of war, when journalism becomes subversion on behalf of hostile powers, then it is called High Treason!” Hamid has a history of attacking the press for being pro-India and anti-Pakistan. Last August on Dunya TV, he made similar accusations on SAFMA for which he received widespread condemnation from journalists and media workers.

Zaid Hamid may seem like a radical minority in Pakistan, but the conservative and religious-nationalist narrative espoused by him is also indicative of an emerging social fabric in the country. It was during General Zia’s reign that ruling institutions such as the army and the security services gained an immovable hold on Pakistani society. They become irreproachable in a growing conservative and religious national identity. However, while it was once only blasphemous to criticise the ruling army, journalists now have to be careful not to offend the many facets of Pakistani society. The fragile security status in the country has been used by the ultra conservative and nationalist elements to weave a new dangerous narrative that presents fresh dangers for journalists.

The ‘war on terrorism’ has opened up Pakistan to violent Islamist groups to carry out suicide attacks in the country. Groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and prominent others outlawed by the state have used the instability to threaten civil society. Journalists reporting on these groups have faced constant death threats, with some not fortunate enough to survive. The growing nationalism now holds the standing previously only reserved for the army and security services. For fear of death, journalists now regularly self-censor their own works. While journalistic pieces on the political parties of Pakistan maintain freedom to criticise, any probes into the religious and community aspects of the social fabric are seen as unacceptable, bordering on blasphemous. However, it remains difficult to distinguish the lines of influence between government institutions, political parties, banned groups such the Tehreek-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba and civil society. The modus operandi of these institutions and groups continues to be a grey area.

Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have cited numerous statements from Pakistani journalists who have been intimidated for their work by intelligence agents and extremist groups. For example, Wali Khan Babar, reporting for Geo TV, was shot dead shortly after his piece on gang violence was aired. The Managing Director of Geo TV, suspected Pakistan’s third biggest party, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) to be behind the attack. Similarly, Faisal Qureshi of the London Post was found killed in Lahore; his brother told CPJ of receiving threats from men claiming to be from the MQM. The MQM is the largest liberal secular party in Pakistan, but has a history of violence and intimidation. In May last year, Saleem Shahzad, a columnist for Asia Times Online, was found tortured to death. Prior to his death, he had written an article on the links between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani navy. He had told friends of being threatened by Inter Services Intelligence agents in the months up to his death.
Pakistan topped two independent lists of journalists killed during last year. It was top of the 2011 International Federation of Journalists list of countries ranked by number of journalists killed and was named the ‘deadliest country for journalists’ in 2011 by CPJ, who reported 11 killings of journalists in Pakistan during the year. This is substantially more than countries in recognised wars such as Iraq and Libya (which had 5 each) and Afghanistan and Somalia (2 each). There has already been one journalist killed this year; Mukarram Khan Atif – a journalist for the Voice of America – who was gunned down by the Tehreek-e-Taliban as he was praying in a mosque in Peshawar. Prior to the shooting, he had received several threats for covering the Taliban in the lawless north-west region of the country. The lawlessness of northern Pakistan leaves journalists open to serious threats from religious and community leaders, warlords and corrupt politicians who fear for their reputations. In these parts, elements of honour and personal pride are spuriously defended, usually without fear of justice.

Quite apart from the disorder that threatens the lives of press freedom in north-west Pakistan, there are also fresh signs of a state-level censorship of media. The recent decision by the government to introduce a national URL filtering and blocking system has been met with widespread disapproval from civil and human rights groups in Pakistan. The system is purportedly designed to filter and block pornographic and blasphemous material on the internet, though there have already been reports that it could also have effects on the circulation of online local news media. Although the plan has reportedly been shelved for the time being, it illustrates the difficult environment that journalists in Pakistan find themselves working in. This narrative of religious-nationalism is ultimately paid for in blood and sweat, by civilians and journalists alike.

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