Islamabad, Pakistan – Journalists here in Pakistan operate in an environment where attacks, intimidation, torture and abductions are rampant.
People seeking to control the news media can “get away with murder”, according to a report released by Amnesty International on Wednesday.
The report, “A bullet has been chosen for you”, draws on testimony from more than 70 journalists and media workers who told personal stories of intimidation or attacks.
Since 2001, Pakistan has consistently ranked among the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, according to data compiled by journalist rights organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
According to CPJ, at least 44 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the past decade because of their work. The organisation ranked Pakistan ninth on its 2014 Impunity Index, which ranks how likely perpetrators of attacks against media organisations are to escape justice. RSF, meanwhile, ranked Pakistan 158th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index this year – placing it below several countries considered to be active conflict zones, including Afghanistan (128th) and Iraq (153rd).
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In 2013, eight journalists were killed in Pakistan, and the tally for this year reached four by April 28. In the most recent attack, on April 19, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the vehicle of Hamid Mir, the country’s most well-known television news talk show host, badly wounding him. Just three weeks earlier, another television talk show host, Raza Rumi, narrowly escaped an attack that killed his driver in Lahore.
The Amnesty report documented the threatening of journalist union leaders as they led rallies against the Taliban’s killing of their colleagues; television news anchors receiving threats from political parties; reporters in Balochistan intimidated by the country’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency; television newsroom producers threatened by sectarian groups for a perceived lack of coverage; reporters abducted by al-Qaeda-linked groups; and those killed after being tortured by persons unknown.
Threats to journalists in Pakistan are legion, the report said, coming both from state institutions – such as the ISI and other intelligence agencies, police and security forces – as well as non-state actors, including armed hard-line religious groups, sectarian organisations, criminal gangs and separatists.
The most at-risk journalists, the report found, are those who cover national security issues, human rights abuses and politics. Journalists are threatened across the country, but the situation is worst in Pakistan’s troubled northwest region, Balochistan province and the country’s largest city, Karachi.
‘Violence as a negotiation tool’
“There are red lines on all sides for journalists in Pakistan now,” David Griffiths, Amnesty’s South Asia director, told Al Jazeera. “Many are stuck in a situation where taking one perspective almost necessarily puts them at risk of incurring the wrath of another actor. So a lot of journalists are stuck in this almost impossible situation where catering to one perpetrator to avoid risk of abuse almost inevitably increases the risk of abuse from another perpetrator.”
Adnan Rehmat, a director at independent Pakistani media monitoring group Civic Action Resources, said there was simply no protection for Pakistan’s journalists, and they exist at the mercy of those willing to use force.
“Our society uses violence as a tool for negotiations,” he told Al Jazeera. “The violence against journalists is a manifestation of the larger violence in our country.”
There is no police there, no law and order there... You can be abducted from your home at any time, in any way. We have no protection other than the microphone, and even that we have to hide in public.
Pakistan’s press has blossomed since the liberalisation of media ownership laws in 2002, with 89 private television stations and 115 private FM radio stations currently operational, in addition to more than 600 newspapers.
But the media’s increasing influence has meant it is also increasingly targeted by those it reports on.
“The fact that journalists are under attack from all sides shows that there are many different perpetrators who are capable of violence against journalists and are seeking to ensure favourable coverage,” said Griffiths. “And they know as a consequence of the impunity that they can attack journalists, intimidate them and try to shape coverage favourably towards them – and literally get away with murder.”
Griffiths pointed in particular to Balochistan province, where armed and political separatist movements have been battling the Pakistani state for decades. Journalists in Balochistan have reported coming under attack from state intelligence agencies and the military, as well as from both pro- and anti-state armed groups. More than 35 percent of all journalist deaths since 2008 have occurred in Balochistan, and the report documented several cases of abduction, torture and killing there.
Another area of the country where journalists are increasingly under threat is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region where Pakistani laws and state authority are abridged, and where several armed groups, including the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and al-Qaeda, are based.
“There is no police there, no law and order there… You can be abducted from your home at any time, in any way,” said Umar Daraz Wazir, who has faced multiple death threats as a radio journalist in North Waziristan, a district in FATA. “We have no protection other than the microphone, and even that we have to hide in public.”
Wazir said he had been threatened by village elders, the political administration, the Taliban and the Pakistani military because of his reporting.
“I try to report in a balanced way, but when I say [the military] has said this and TTP says this and civilians say this, then the other side always asks why you presented [their opponent’s] point of view. No one understands balance here – they hear one word, and then they are angered.”
So why do attacks continue to happen? Rights activists and journalists whom Al Jazeera spoke to said it was because of the impunity with which perpetrators are able to target media workers.
“Few attacks on journalists are promptly and thoroughly investigated by the state authorities in Pakistan, leading to a climate of impunity for those who threaten and carry out such attacks. These human rights abuses increasingly result in self-censorship by journalists and have a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression across the country,” the report reads.
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Only two cases in which journalists were killed have led to convictions in the past 20 years, and, according to the CPJ, Pakistan has had a “near perfect record of impunity”.
While most cases go untried, “perpetrators of violent attacks against journalists, who range from banned militant groups like the Taliban to political groups, use unchecked violence against journalists to censor and control coverage”, CPJ said.
Griffiths said the lack of accountability is key to understanding the increase in attacks. “Unless the government brings the perpetrators of these crimes to justice, then we can only imagine these attacks will continue,” he told Al Jazeera.
State authorities, journalists said, are sympathetic to the threats they face, but little is done to actively change the situation. On March 19, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised his government would do more to protect journalists’ freedom and safety, including increased prosecutions of those found responsible for threats and attacks.
The statement has been welcomed, but journalists said with continuing attacks – including those against Rumi and Mir in the past month – the proof is in the pudding.
“[Government officials] all come to condole. But it’s all lip service… not much else happens. It’s not even that they’re being vindictive. It’s not that they don’t care about our safety. It’s just indifference,” Kamal Siddiqi, the editor of the Express-Tribune, a prominent English-language daily newspaper, told Amnesty.
Another reason for the impunity, rights activists said, is how the attacks have been framed.
In the aftermath of the attack on Mir, for example, Geo, the television channel he works for, aired Mir’s suspicions that he would be attacked by the ISI, with news anchors going as far as to demand the resignation of Lieutenant-General Zaheer ul-Islam, the current ISI chief.
The allegations against Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service were unprecedented, and prompted a backlash from other news organisations, accusing Geo and its parent company of “anti-state” propaganda. In another unprecedented move, the defence ministry moved the country’s regulatory body to revoke Geo’s broadcast licence based on the accusations it aired.
This threat is physical now, the threat of complete elimination. If the state doesn't like you, they eliminate you. If non-state actors don't like you, they just eliminate you.
Terming the situation “incredible”, Rehmat, the media rights activist, said by responding to the allegations and not the crime itself, rival television news channels were entirely missing the point and underscoring the lack of unity among journalists.
“It is a free-for-all. It is really ugly, and there’s no unified stance,” he said. “The takeaway here is that the issue of impunity against journalists in the country has been sidetracked, and journalism has become a casualty when a journalist was becoming a casualty.”
Meanwhile, those who are capable and willing to carry out attacks against journalists continue to set the tone of the narrative, and of what is acceptable to cover in the public sphere.
The Express media group (of which the Express-Tribune is a part), for example, has seen its staff targeted in multiple attacks across the country since December, when the TTP singled it out for not providing “balanced” coverage. Three people have been killed so far. The attacks resulted in management deciding to self-censor on issues relating to militancy, rather than face the threat of continuing violence.
Muhammad Ziauddin, the executive editor of the paper and one of the country’s most senior and well-respected journalists, summed it up for Al Jazeera: “I can recall, from the early 1960s to about 2000… if some small government minion sitting in a corner of the country did not like the colour of my shirt, he could arrest me, stop my newspaper, seize my printing press and send me to prison – those were the kind of laws under which we worked.
“But since 2001, the threat has been not from the government of the day, and the threat has not been confined to sending us to prison, it is related to life itself… This threat is physical now, the threat of complete elimination. If the state doesn’t like you, they eliminate you. If non-state actors don’t like you, they just eliminate you.”
Amnesty’s recommendations focus on bringing journalists’ attackers to justice. Others with whom Al Jazeera spoke voiced an urgent need for more risk assessment training by media houses, and the need for those organisations to protect their own.
“The bar [for what journalists expect] is so low, it’s really unacceptable and it puts journalists in an almost impossible situation,” said Griffiths. “This is why there needs to be a reversal in the pattern of impunity. So it’s not just about the basics: about whether or not someone can survive the day.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim