Journalism in Pakistan, a threatened existence

Journalists in Pakistan face threats and violent attacks while trying to report on sensitive subjects.

PM Nawaz Sharif has promised journalists safer working conditions [AFP/Getty Images]

“I cannot believe that a life has been lost because of me, how will I live with myself?” This was the first sentence my friend, journalist Raza Rumi, uttered when I went to see him the night he survived an assassination attempt, which killed his driver on March 28. Rumi was surrounded by his other friends, journalists who came to see him, as police officers walked in and out of his house. While narrating that he had the sense to duck when he heard the first gunshot, listlessly, he would mourn Mustafa, his 25-year-old driver who took two out of 11 bullets sprayed on his car.

Rumi’s name was on a list issued by the Pakistani Taliban in February which warned of repercussions for journalists who opposed the government’s dialogue with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, a militant outfit behind hundreds of terrorist attacks in the country in the last eight years). He had been getting threats for a year, and often struggled with the decision of leaving Pakistan. “Why should I leave my country and cede space to the extremists?” was his argument always. 

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While the attack on Rumi had not been claimed by anyone, police had admitted in private that it had finger prints of the banned anti-Shia militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)  and has now arrested the mastermind of the attack. LeJ, which has carried out many terrorist attacks and bombings across Pakistan, has targeted primarily Shia individuals including doctors, lawyers and a playwright. Rumi, not a Shia himself, has been calling for state action against this organisation.

Repeated attacks

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, evidence and data collated by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and rights organisations have demonstrated. Be it impunity, threats by intelligence agencies or attacks by non-state actors, all point towards an environment not just disallowing free speech but insistent on eliminating any dissent.

In March, before the Raza Rumi attack, PM Nawaz Sharif promised a CPJ delegation cooperation on making Pakistan safer for journalists. And God knows how and when this promise would result in an effective implementation, considering the track record of Pakistani governments on media freedom. Rumi has left Pakistan for sometime because his security was not guaranteed by the police.

Jamshed Baghwan, Peshawar bureau chief of Express News, an Urdu language network where Rumi hosted his talk-show (currently he is off-air) has been targeted twice this year. A bag with 2.5kg of explosives was found outside his house, and on April 6, grenades were thrown at his residence. Baghwan says every day his mother and colleagues tell him to leave the country. “All that I have ever done is journalism, I started as a proof reader and have no other skills or money for supporting my family”, he said to me in a personal conversation.

Earlier in 2014 Express News live van was fired at in Karachi, and three of its news crew died. The attack was claimed by TTP on live television the same day. Fear of getting bombed and ratings competition between news outlets have discouraged a united front against violent oppression of journalists. Journalists in some incidents have also feared standing with their comrades due to the others’ religious sect.

Pakistani journalists face more than one enemy. If the state ever decides to actually tackle the journalist’s lack of security, which enemy would it deal with first? A friend, who is a multimedia producer with an international news outlet, got frequent calls from a “private number” in November 2013, when he covered the story of Baloch families protesting human rights violations by Pakistan’s army.

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The fact that he is an Ahmadi – a persecuted religious minority – made him more vulnerable to any surveillance or a threat which came his way. This is the reason he is not named in this article.

Private number calls are mostly from intelligence agency officers who choose to threaten or just intimidate. It is an open secret among journalists across the country that their phones are either tapped or can be by the intelligence, whenever they feel like it. At times reporters get repeated missed calls from private numbers only, which is probably the least aggressive intimidation tactic.

In my friend’s case though, he was told clearly that if he would not stop reporting on the plight of Baloch people, his religious affiliation will be made public. Most Ahmadis in Pakistan avoid declaring their faith publically, as it can result in a variety of reactions, from social boycotts to murders and blasphemy cases against them. My friend then informed his bureau about the threats, and skipped work for a few days. When he finally rejoined, he changed his route to work, stopped going to the gym and meeting friends outside his house. “I felt like someone was following me all the time,” is what he told me of his fear then. 

Eventually the organisation he works for transferred him to a station outside Pakistan for some time. While international media outlets provide security training to their employees and have mechanisms to implement protection policies, in Pakistan such cautions are almost unheard of.

Another journalist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) currently works between his hometown and another city, where he has had to move to. In KP, the province worst hit by militancy, terrorism is the most focused story, which cannot be investigated or explored fully due to security concerns of journalists, as they cannot criticise either the militants or the military openly. This limitation and the trauma of reporting on bloodshed have taken on toll on the said journalist’s work. “At times journalists are killed here and we have no idea about who or why,” he tells me via a phone call on fixed lines, because he avoids cell phones as much as he can. They can be tapped.

Journalists across the country continue to report on vital stories with varying degrees of censorship mostly dictated by the language of reportage, for it can provide the journalists with a shield or make them more vulnerable. Rumi was attacked because he is one of the few journalists who brought an assertive conversation against Pakistan government’s decision to dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban to primetime Urdu network from the op-ed sections of English-language dailies and social media. Urdu-language TV has a wide mass viewership in the country as compared to the English dailies and is more influential in building public opinion.

Journalists who have reported on stories against narratives built and sustained by the right wing majority in establishment, government, clergy and academia have only been able to report and write commentary in English-language outlets. In a way the war between journalists and the right wing elements in society reflects the warring narratives between the secular and the religious-right.

After Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination by his police guard for defending a Christian woman charged with blasphemy in 2011, a wide section of liberals as we call them here, thought their struggle will not recover.  Since then many who are advocating less popular i.e. progressive causes have been targeted in different ways and an attempt at Rumi’s life reinforces the familiar insecurity that the religious right cannot even be debated with.

Rabia Mehmood is a freelance journalist based out of Pakistan. She reports in print and video.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rabail26.