In Pakistan, a news media minefield

In the most dangerous place on Earth to be a journalist, the media’s problems are reflections of the state’s incapacity.

Pakistani journalists protest for free media
Pakistani journalists say they face threats from both state and non-state actors, and lack any protection [EPA]

In 2011, Pakistan was, for the second year running, the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), seven journalists were killed in the country as a direct result of their profession – most of those were killed in targeted attacks (rather than indiscriminate bomb blasts) for having reported on particular topics.

A further four were also killed, though the US-based media rights watchdog was not able to establish a confirmed link between the victim’s reporting and their deaths, bringing the total death toll up to 11 (a number similar to that cited by the media rights group Reporters Without Borders).

To put those numbers in perspective, consider this: in each of Iraq and Libya (both active war zones during the past year), five journalists were killed in 2011, while in Afghanistan (another active war zone) and largely lawless Somalia, the death toll was two in each.

The deaths of Pakistani journalists, however, are a marker of a complex news media landscape, where reporters say that while the media is technically free, they constantly operate in grey areas, self-censoring themselves in many cases. Further, an analysis of the intricate, nuanced reality of news reporting in Pakistan reveals a landscape shaped by the strong strands of nationalism and conservatism that run through the country, as well as the economics of what has become, with the liberalisation of media ownership laws, a multi-billion dollar industry in the past ten years.

In terms of lethal dangers, too, the question of what constitutes a “risky” topic is complex. According to journalists, editors and media watchdog organisations that Al Jazeera has spoken to, the answer to the question of where dangers emanate from is quite simply: everywhere.

“…The ISI is only one of the actors that is putting pressure on journalists, threatening them and responsible for their deaths

– Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Programme Co-ordinator

“There was a time when the red line used to be anything to do with the army,” says Mohammad Malick, the Islamabad editor for The News, one of the country’s largest English daily newspapers. “Even if you [talked] about national security, it was taken to be akin to questioning the army’s patriotism. [But] I think now instead of removing the red lines, everybody has added their own. If you write about the MQM’s [a Sindh-based political party] alleged criminal activities, you’re accused of being ethnically motivated. If you write about any other [similar] topic, again you are either accused of being parochial, you’re accused of fanning provincialism. So everybody is hiding behind some ethnic blanket, some cultural barrier.”

Bob Dietz, the CPJ’s Asia Programme Co-ordinator, agrees with that assessment.

“[The media in Pakistan is] free and vibrant, but let me qualify that with saying that they are under tremendous amounts of pressure from all sides,” he told Al Jazeera. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on intelligence services attacking journalists, but the fact, if you look at the journalists slain in the last few years, is that the ISI is only one of the actors that is putting pressure on journalists, threatening them and responsible for their deaths as well.”

Dietz says journalists in Pakistan are under threat from everyone from political parties, religious groups, gun runners, drug dealers and secessionist movements (particularly in the restive province of Balochistan).

“Over here, because of the rampant corruption and absolute lawlessness, when you write a story against somebody, it is not a story against minister so-and-so. He takes it as a personal thing, that you have attacked his personal fortunes, you have attacked his way of life … everything becomes personal here,” says Malick.

Just last week, Najam Sethi, a senior journalist and news talk show host, revealed that he and his family had received several threats “from state and non-state actors”. Hamid Mir, possibly the country’s most well-known news talk show host, made similar revelations a few days earlier.

But it is not just high-profile journalists who are in the line of fire: last month, the producers of a television news segment on how young boys were being held captive in a Karachi madrassah appealed to the authorities for protection after revealing that they had been receiving serious and credible death threats after their story went on the air.

Grey, not red, lines

In decades past, journalists say, the “red lines” were clear in Pakistan: do not address issues related to the country’s powerful military or intelligence agencies (indeed under military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s the country’s defamation laws were amended to restrict reporting “against any person, even if it is true and even if it is in the public interest”).

Today, however, the boundaries have both multiplied and become more blurred, often causing journalists to self-censor rather than risk potential repercussions.

Hajrah Mumtaz, a media columnist at Dawn, the country’s oldest English-language daily newspaper, offers the example of stories related to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws as an illustration of how media groups are caught between draconian laws and a lack of protection.

“When any paper or news channel is reporting on … the blasphemy law … there is no [explicit] self-censorship on these, but on the level of individual journalists and organisations, they are aware of the threat they may come under,” she told Al Jazeera.

“No-one would say this out loud, but you don’t want a bunch of people trying to burn your office down. So especially on matters of religious sentiment … the media organisations end up toeing such a conservative line that in fact they have not taken a stance at all.”

I think if most of the restrictions that are being imposed are out of our own fear. Because we know that if anybody goes after us, we are going to suffer individually [and] we do not have the necessary collective protection either by the law or by any other system.

– Mohammad Malick, Editor

“I personally think that one of the most insidious things [is the lack] of clear censorship,” says Abbas Nasir, a veteran Pakistani journalist who has worked with the BBC and most recently was the editor-in-chief at Dawn. He says that when there were censors who would read through all news copy before it was printed, “writers were always pushing the frontiers, because they [felt] there was no danger. The censor would look at it and take it out”.

With the removal of censors, Nasir says, editors felt the pressure to “perhaps stop a foot short of the boundary rather than risk overstepping the boundary”, considering the possible repercussions for both writers and their organisations as a whole.

“And because the boundary wasn’t clearly well-defined, it was a vague set of [laws and practices], I think that self-censorship continued for a lot longer than necessary.”

Moreover, journalists are aware that they operate in a vague area, without the protection of the state, further exacerbating the problem of self-censorship.

“At one level yes, we are an absolutely free media. But at the same time, we are an absolutely unsafe media also,” says Malick, the Islamabad-based editor. “So I think if most of the restrictions that are being imposed are out of our own fear. Because we know that if anybody goes after us, we are going to suffer individually [and] we do not have the necessary collective protection either by the law or by any other system.”

Sticking to the social fabric

It is not, however, always a case of journalists simply attempting to stay safe. In a country such as Pakistan, where the military has often either directly or indirectly ruled the country, and where media laws have been liberalised only in the past decade, there are also the issues of how journalists allow personal views to colour their reporting. This is a particular problem, editors and analysts say, when it comes to issues of nationalism or social conservatism.

“A right-wing conservative mindset has seeped into Pakistan in the last 30 years,” says Mumtaz, adding that it has been “forcefed to the Pakistani public” since General Zia’s rule. “Most of the journalists who are in the age range of 35-55 grew up under Zia, under a jingoistic mindset that has seeped in far more than even they are aware of.”

Journalists are not immune to the effects of that kind of social fabric, she says.

“You have cases of journalists who would actually argue sincerely [in print and on air] that even asking for a parliamentary review of the laws is blasphemous itself. Because that narrative is so deeply in them,” says Mumtaz.

It’s somehow been planted in [journalists’] heads that to challenge the army is like challenging the integrity of the country.

– Abbas Nasir, veteran journalist

Those issues extend beyond questions of blasphemy to ones of nationalism, particularly when it comes to Pakistan’s largely unpopular alliance with the United States in the war in Afghanistan.

“I feel the media in Pakistan today is totally free. But it exercises that freedom 150 per cent in terms of [criticising] political parties and particularly parties in power, and it exercises that freedom sort of 20-30 per cent where other state institutions, ie the army and the intelligence services [and their policies], are concerned,” says Nasir.

“Because in the back of their mind, I think over the years, subtly the military has planted one suggestion – I don’t mean that there is anything sinister or cowardly on the part of the journalists – but you know it’s somehow been planted in their heads that to challenge the army is like challenging the integrity of the country.”

That’s a sentiment that’s been repeated by several journalists: that reporting on strategic issues related to Pakistan is not just coloured by the risks of going against the army (see the case of Saleem Shahzad), but often by a genuine belief in a particular narrative.

“Some [toe the line] out of fear, others out of genuine belief and the latent anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Some, especially TV channels, do it because of the ratings,” says Mumtaz. “Being angry about the US, or the Salala border strike, or drone attacks – it gets you the equivalent of the greatest number of hits per show.”

Ratings and advertisement revenues provide another clue as to where journalists take their cues from.

Journalists told Al Jazeera that with the country’s 24-hour television news market burgeoning – there are currently at least 21 24-hour news television stations operating in Pakistan – there is a greater emphasis than ever on achieving high ratings – and, in turn, higher advertising revenues.

“Television is fundamentally about telling stories – and a story, in order to be successful, has to have certain elements,” says Khurram Husain, business and economic policy editor for Express News.

“You could tell a truthful story and fail, because it doesn’t push the right buttons. Or you could tell a false story and push the right buttons and be very successful. Instead of true content being the standard, what people want becomes the standard,” he told Al Jazeera.

This pattern – of news media following public perceptions, rather than informing them – is also seen in the scores of locally published newspapers, which are largely dependent on the government for advertising revenues and local political and social groups for patronage.

“They pander to the lowest common denominator of public sentiment,” says Malick.

“They are constantly roaming with the mood. And again, it depends which paper is based on what area. A paper based in let’s say the Bahawalpur area, with very strong Punjabi Taliban presence, it will make sure that its write-ups and everything have a very strong religious tinge, have very strong pro-Jihadi leanings in them. Because he wants to stay in business,” he said. The paper’s leanings would not necessarily be related to those of its owners, rather they were simply dictated by its market, he added.

The scale of Pakistan’s local – or “vernacular” – press is huge; just a small proportion of the country’s 184 daily newspapers are printed nationally.

“The overwhelming majority do not have the financial or technical mettle to actually be independent,” concluded Malick.

Journalists, however, remain hopeful that the industry will move towards a more responsible model of reporting. In recent years, the major television news stations have agreed a set of guidelines regarding how much violence is acceptable to show, as well as delaying live feeds from active conflict zones in order to deny armed groups the ability to use broadcasts for intelligence on police/security forces’ movements.

Many say that the lack of responsibility in Pakistan’s news media is not the result of a conspiracy, as many Pakistanis tend to suspect, but often also a lack of capacity.

“There’s a great deal of freedom now, but I’m not sure that the journalists have received proper training to be responsible with that freedom,” says Nasir.

“It’s like giving a 13-year-old a brand new sportscar,” says Malick. “I mean he’s bound to, on one of the sharp turns, not control his speed and go into a wall. So the media does go into a wall every now and then. Certainly the power is too much, the influence is too much, but the technical expertise is not enough to temper it. And we are very conscious of that … There is a need for a new social covenant between the media, the people and the government of the day.”

“We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry now. So unless it regulates itself voluntarily, it will end up being regulated. And I don’t think anybody would like that.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera