|Volume 5 Issue 05 | May 2011|
Repressing the Press in Pakistan
IQBAL KHATTAK runs a critical eye over the dangers to the media in Pakistan.
Winter of 2003 was around the corner and Wana's Rustam bazaar was swarmed by shoppers from different places of Ahmedzai Wazir areas of South Waziristan, regarded as "birthplace of Taliban" in Pakistan. Away from noisy and crowded markets, a young tribal reporter was awaiting us in a small room on the first floor as I and my journalist friend from BBC reached this town a day after the first-ever commandos' raid on a compound in Angoor Adda town near the border with Afghanistan led to the "arrest" of al-Qaeda militants and their tribal facilitators.
Dilawar Khan Wazir was our resource person in the region being visited for the first time. His journey through the difficult period of his life when Wana and other towns were literally under the control of foreign and local militants was finally rewarded after years of sheer hard work and personal agonies which he underwent when International Council for Press and Broadcasting recognised his services as a journalist.
The award comes weeks before the World Press Freedom Day is to be observed on May 3 amidst increasingly an hostile environment for media in Pakistan where journalists, like Dilawar Khan, pay a price for helping fellow countrymen and the rest of the world to remain informed.
Struggle for survival is what almost every journalist aims now to ensure in the face of Pakistan being declared as "the most dangerous country" by media rights groups like Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for media-persons after 14 journalists were killed in 13 months.
For journalists, Pakistan was the deadliest country in the world in 2010, according to CPJ data. The country also ranked 10th on the CPJ's global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are regularly slain and authorities fail to solve the crimes.
The situation went from bad to worse with the country's joining the controversial US-led war on terror. Since 2002, around 40 journalists -- two of them foreigners -- were killed in the line of duty. Lawless tribal areas along the Pak-Afghan border are literally no-go areas now for journalists where most journalists either migrated or quit the profession to avoid being killed or harmed.
"Journalist community is the easiest and soft target throughout the country. Terrorists and anti-state elements are targeting the journalists," Amin Yousaf, secretary-general of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, has said of the worsening situation for the media in the country.
For many it may come as a rude shock that no murder case involving a Pakistani journalist has been resolved so far. The only case involving the murder of a journalist to be investigated and perpetrators of the crime sentenced was of Wall Street Journal's reporter Daniel Pearl. The late Daniel Pearl's case was different since the US government hotly pursued his murder case and former president Gen. (Retd) Pervez Musharraf was himself monitoring the situation. For the poor Pakistani journalists, there has been no one to do justice.
Taliban-linked militancy hit the media harder. Other pressure groups, religious-cum-political parties, drug, land and other mafia did not lag behind, however. But the secret services have complete impunity to harass, threaten and kidnap any journalist who they believe is crossing "the red line" or encroaching upon "restricted areas" where the military-run spy networks do not allow independent journalism.
Media is experiencing different situations in different parts of the country. In Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the threat from the al-Qaeda and Taliban keep media off. In Balochistan, insurgency and counter-insurgency measures are making journalism a life-threatening job while journalists in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province feel the heat even more since they cover stories of the war on terror from Peshawar. In Karachi, the threat is serious in a different way where independent journalists will pay a heavy price if they investigative stories on one ethnic party or the other or different underground mafia.
Karachi by all means is one of the most dangerous cities for journalists. But it is still the biggest media market in the country. Despite being a dangerous city, the number of journalists killed in Karachi is quite low. And the reason is that the threat is far more sophisticated than imagined. A caller will just say they know where your sister or daughter is studying. This message is far more devastative for any journalist than any other threat. "If they threaten you with dishonouring your sister or daughter it stops you from doing any story against these elements," a senior journalist in Karachi narrates.
In former "valley of fear" Swat, which was liberated from the clutches of Taliban rule in the wake of military Operation Rah-e-Rast ('Operation Right Path'), the journalists were "sandwiched" between the militants and the army. A fact-finding report by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders in April 2009 gives insight into the situation there. "We have been working in very difficult circumstances for two years," says Ghulam Farooq, the editor of Shamal, the valley's most widely read daily, according to a RSF report. "The Taliban commanders were furious at being described as rebels rather than mujahideen (holy warriors). And the soldiers wanted the media on their side in the battle against the insurgents."
The threat to independent media reached a level when Peshawar press club was targeted by 'walking bomber' on December 22, 2009. Scores of journalists would have been killed in the suicide attack had brave cop Muhammad Riaz not stopped the bomber from getting closer to the crowd of journalists. A bomb-proof wall and gates -- built with the US taxpayers' money -- now guard the journalists against any such attack in the future.
What is most worrying is the government's lethargy. It is letting crimes against the media go unpunished. Essa Khan is a Swat-based journalist and he is waiting for the day when the police will launch an investigation into the killing of his brother Musa Khankhel, who was a journalist and murdered two days after the provincial government inked in February 2009 a 'peace deal' with a cleric promising the return of peace to the formerly princely state of Swat. "No single hearing has taken place so far since his murder," the frustrated brother said during the second death anniversary of journalist Musa Khankhel early this year in Mingora, district headquarters of Swat valley.
Media has seen a real boom under military rule as Gen. Musharraf allowed independent private television channels in 2002 for the first time since the country's independence in 1947. Before this, viewers had no choice except to stay glued to the state-run Pakistan Television which disallowed the opposition voices to go on air. So was the case with radio listeners.
The boom in private electronic media threw up new opportunities for the journalists who were earlier not offered attractive salary packages or a good working environment. The boom opened up doors for young journalists who appeared electrified by a "bright future." However, the media-persons were trained and equipped enough to take on the challenge -- breaking news syndrome? Many would argue it lacked basic training and necessary equipment. More importantly, the competitive media-persons were not imparted training to work in hostile environments such as in tribal areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Musharraf did not seem to be in love with the independent media. It was a strategic move to keep Pakistanis away from the influence of satellite-based Indian television channels hitting every household in Pakistan. Meanwhile, both Islamabad and New Delhi do not encourage cable operators to air television news channels of each other in their respective countries after the attack on the Indian Parliament in late 2001.
We cannot close our eyes to the fact that in many press freedom violation cases the state itself seemed to have been involved. Its security agencies have been threatening media-persons with complete impunity. What encourages the state to step up repression against the media? It strikes many. And I find the fault lies with the major western capitals, including Washington, too, which stopped taking such and other human rights violations seriously for the reason that they could not afford annoying Islamabad whose support for the war on terror is absolutely important.
Despite all these difficult times and the security establishment's old practice of keeping the media gagged, the hope for survival does keep journalists going and dedicating the award to those who lost lives in line of professional duty makes Dilawar Khan even stronger and happier to be a journalist. The media is becoming a member of the family now as the population seeks greater access to information to make the government accountable and help constitutional institutions such as the judiciary and Parliament work independently from the influence of non-democratic forces in the country. Despite a hostile environment and slowness of the economy due to the law and order situation, the media keeps growing with the arrival of foreign brands in the media industry such as Newsweek and International Herald Tribune.
Iqbal Khattak is Bureau Chief, Daily Times, Peshawar, Pakistan.
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