Karachi, Pakistan – When rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead on a main Karachi boulevard on April 24, television channels reported that the killing followed a talk she had organised at her cafe.
But they stopped short of mentioning what this talk was about.
When the story was published in print the next day, most English publications and some Urdu newspapers mentioned that the event was about enforced disappearances in the southwest province of Balochistan.
Disappearances of Baloch men have been largely blamed on Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, putting the media in a difficult spot with respect to coverage and censorship issues.
The motive behind Mahmud’s murder is unclear, but civil society activists and investigators believe that she was killed for her activism and for being outspoken on various contentious topics, from extremism to state-sponsored abuses.
“This incident will force people to go into a defensive mode and attempts to put across the truth will naturally suffer,” said Muhammad Ali Talpur, a Baloch activist and columnist.
“The question after Sabeen Mahmud’s murder is not only now what, but also who next?”
M Ziauddin, an independent print journalist and former executive editor of the Express Tribune, said: “The media was already self-censoring when it comes to the insurgency in Balochistan. And after the LUMS affair, Mama Qadeer has become particularly taboo. But firm instructions from the state cannot be ruled out.”
The talk that Mahmud organised that night was initially supposed to be hosted at the LUMS university in Lahore.
Our government has always been supportive of the media, it is independent and we have not tried to create obstacles in any way. Despite this, the reason why Pakistan still ranks so low in press freedom is because of our problem with terrorism. Journalists are under security threat, just like politicians, security forces or children in school.
The university cancelled it a day before it was scheduled, saying it was pressured by government authorities to do so.
Among the panellists was Mama Qadeer, chairperson of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, an organisation that is fighting for “missing persons”.
Qadeer’s name is a sensitive one in Pakistan because of his allegations against the state for abducting Baloch men.
Last year, he set off on an historic long march from Quetta to Islamabad.
Seventy-two year old Qadeer, his 11-year-old grandson and relatives of the missing persons walked over 2,000km in 106 days. This too, received scant media attention.
‘Graveyard for journalists’
Talpur regularly wrote columns for an English language daily between 2009-2013, until the management felt pressured into discontinuing them.
“I was asked not to write about issues related to Balochistan and there was nothing else I wanted to write about, so I stopped writing,” he said.
For the state-sponsored television outlet, Pakistan Television (PTV), meanwhile, issues of abuse and disappearances remain nonexistent.
Shezad Baloch, a Quetta-based journalist who also works as an anchor for PTV, said stories on enforced disappearances, among other stories on the human rights abuses in the province, are not covered at all.
Baloch feels Mahmud’s murder will barely affect reporting from Balochistan.
“Do you see any investigative pieces from local journalists anyway? All reporting from Balochistan is about security forces’ and militants’ claims,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The list of who journalists fear is much longer than who they do not,” he said.
“Stories on sectarian violence, militant organisations, security forces […] even covering social issues is a problem. We are unsafe.
“If they let journalists work, it will help everyone address the issues plaguing the province. Biased reporting can be responded to with a rebuttal. But at least let the people decide, do not kill or harass or threaten us.”
Pakistan continues to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists.
In terms of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Pakistan 159 out of 180 countries in 2015. The year before it was 158th.
According to the 2014 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 44 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2004 and most of those in Balochistan.
While stories from the provincial capital Quetta still come through, there is barely any news from other parts of the province.
Khuzdar, the second largest city in Balochistan, was referred to as a “graveyard for journalists” in a report published by Amnesty International last year, and the Khuzdar Press Club currently remains closed.
Only a messenger service?
Daily security threats also remain a reality for journalists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and neighbouring province Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
“What are the risks? Our whole life is a risk,” said Zulfiqar Ali, a reporter based in Dera Ismail Khan.
Journalists cannot do any work any more. All we can do is forward statements from the Taliban or the army. And statements have to be published as is.
“Journalists cannot do any work any more. All we can do is forward statements from the Taliban or the army. And statements have to be published as is.”
They are threatened from all sides, Ali says, from the Taliban to the security forces.
“We don’t even talk about it any more, not even in a private space with friends. You don’t know who you can trust any longer or who is an informant.”
The way to survive for journalists in the current circumstances is substance abuse, he said. “Everyone is on drugs.”
Ali said they were pressured to misinform the public when military operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in North Waziristan last year.
North Waziristan itself was inaccessible and the closest reporters could get was Bannu, where people displaced from Waziristan had been evacuated to.
“We had to lie about the situation there. We couldn’t even report on the way law enforcement officials would treat IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons]. All we could report on were VIP photo shoots.”
Ziauddin has seen Pakistani media at its best and worst. He was among the 100 information heroes of the world in a list made by RWB on May 3 last year.
He says that in some ways, things are in fact getting better.
“More human rights violations get reported now than ever before because of private electronic media, the ‘breaking news’ trend as well as number of incidents. The state becomes concerned only when its agencies are blamed for the incident.”
“Our government has always been supportive of the media, it is independent and we have not tried to create obstacles in any way,” said Mohsin Ranjha, parliamentary secretary for the Pakistan Ministry of Information.
“Despite this, the reason why Pakistan still ranks so low in press freedom is because of our problem with terrorism. Journalists are under security threat, just like politicians, security forces or children in school.”
Pakistan has certainly seen worse times, particularly during General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime of 11 years where the press was forced into publishing content that only suited the state narrative.
But now, it’s worse in terms of security, where they are too many groups that pose a threat to media freedom.
Newfound press freedom
Meanwhile in Karachi, where political influence had intimidated journalists for years, some space has opened up for reporters.
For years, journalists felt threatened into not reporting on political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which is seen as the the culprit behind much of Karachi’s notorious violence.
It is the recent crackdown on the MQM that has transformed reporting on the feared political party in the past few months alone.
Gibran Peshimam, executive producer for Geo TV, attributes this newfound space to the arrest of MQM chief Altaf Hussain in connection with the murder of an MQM leader in London, and more so, with the security forces’ use of the media to hit the MQM and its associates on the ground.
Today, MQM can be named and blamed for any violence.
“This opening has been pushed very much by security forces. And I feel it will remain this open until the security forces decide to back off,” said Peshimam.
“It is not an organically created opening based on the slow maturing of the media or of the MQM. In closed rooms, the media still discusses the hit-back once things die down. And that gives you a fair idea of how sustainable this opening is.”
Follow Zehra Abid on Twitter: @zehra_abid4