Iraq and Afghanistan may be undergoing insurgencies more serious than those in Pakistan, but it is this country that has become the most dangerous place for media personnel. The annual report of the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) identifies Pakistan as the “world’s deadliest country for the press in 2010”. According to the CPJ, eight journalists were killed in the line of duty. Repeating the CPJ’s label of ‘world’s deadliest country’, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports 13 ‘murders’ in as many months and expresses concern that this dangerous trend will continue in 2011. The RSF’s fears were confirmed when Wali Khan Babar, a young reporter of Geo News, was shot dead earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the findings of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan raise the death tally to 20 for 2010 — this figure includes journalists and other media personnel. The killers range from militants to feudals. Almost all journalists have been killed while on professional duty, at sites where suicide bombers have struck, or else they have been targeted for their line of reporting.
Apart from killings, journalists in Pakistan have also been subjected to kidnappings and harassment (such as attacks on their homes). These are widely believed to be the acts of our shadowy intelligence agencies. On March 22, Rafique Baloch, vice-president of the Karachi Union of Journalists, was kidnapped and held for several hours by unidentified men while he was on his way to a court hearing. Worse was the case of Umar Cheema of The News who was kidnapped and tortured by people he believed belonged to intelligence agencies. Cheema was among the few who spoke out openly about his ordeal, pointing fingers at intelligence agencies’ personnel.
While they become victims of terrorism in urban areas, reporters and stringers in smaller towns and rural areas become easy prey for tribal chiefs when their reports go against the vested interests of these locally influential groups. MH Khan of Dawn was attacked by activists of the Sindh National Front in early 2010 and was seriously injured. Journalists also have to bear the wrath of an increasingly aggressive lawyers’ community, as well as the police. The latest example of police brutality was the beating up of Zahid Hussain, a cameraman for Express TV, while he was covering an armed clash between two groups in Peshawar on March 4.
With journalists becoming increasingly vulnerable as Pakistan sinks deeper into various forms of violence, it is surprising that no organisation has yet been formed to campaign for the right of journalists for safety in the performance of their duty. While media organisations can be rightly faulted for not taking adequate steps for the protection of the journalists they employ, journalists themselves have been erratic in expressing their concern about issues of safety. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and local unions do protest violence against journalists, but their campaigns have been far from sustained.
The trend of non-state actors becoming threats to working journalists perhaps started in the early 90s when political parties began to flex their muscles and show their intolerance towards any reporting considered to be negative. In fact, the frequency of attacks — from various religious and political groups — led Zamir Niazi to compile the incidents of violence in his book The Press under Siege. Today, with armed terrorists and suicide bombers roaming the land and the representatives of the ‘deep state’ seeing journalists as potential enemies, it is time for media organisations and journalists’ associations to come together to address the issue of the protection for journalists. Otherwise, the ultimate victim will be truth itself.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2011.