A journalist in Pakistan: Living on the edge

Published: July 3, 2011

Journalists have the power to change perceptions. But when their work puts them in danger, it is society’s right to infomation which is really at risk.

The story is by now familiar: Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times Online, went missing on May 29th, on his way to participate in a television talk sthow in Islamabad. Two days after his abduction, his body was found at Mandi Bahauddin. Subsequently, the ISI was accused of complicity in his killing, which it promptly denied.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan has become a hotspot of global news, but while it may be “a good beat” for reporters, at the same time, the dangers it poses to them are grave: the government, militants, the military and intelligence agencies — it seems that journalists are up against them all. Shahzad’s murder puts the perils of being a journalist in Pakistan sharply into focus, but this isn’t the first time that a journalist has been in grave danger because of his job.

The curious case of Saleem Shahzad

A mild-mannered, soft-spoken person, Shahzad’s area of specialisation — international security and terrorism — led him to focus on Pakistan’s armed forces, the northern tribal belt, al Qaeda and the Taliban militancy. In 2011 Shahzad wrote a daring book, Inside al Qaeda and Taliban: Beyond Osama Bin Laden and 9/11.

I met him in January this year in Karachi and, while swapping views on the law and order situation, I asked if he felt under threat or surveillance for reporting so daringly on sensitive issues. “Oh, constantly,” was his prompt response. “I was abducted by the Taliban in 2006 in Afghanistan. I was shot last year here in Islamabad but survived, and I do receive threats from intelligence agencies and militants alike. But, you know, this is all part and parcel of journalism.”

Days before his murder, Shahzad wrote the first of a two-part report on the extent of al Qaeda’s infiltration in the lower ranks of Pakistan’s Navy. After his disappearance, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed concern and reported that he might have been abducted by a state agency. The commission’s statement said, “It has been suggested that Shahzad’s reporting after a terrorist attack on a navy aviation base in Karachi might have something to do with his abduction.” Other analysts too suspect the involvement of the state’s secret agency in the abduction and killing of Saleem Shahzad.

Of state and non-state threats

Shahzad’s case is unique in the sense that he was killed. Mohammad Rafique Baloch, is still alive, as is Umar Cheema, investigatvie reporter of The News.Both were allegedly abducted by intelligence agencies and tortured. Baloch, a Karachi-based journalist and vice president of Karachi Union of Journalists claimed that he was picked up by intelligence agencies to restrain him from appearing in a court hearing in a case about journalists’ wages.

“I was on my way to the Sindh High Court on March 21st at around 8 am when I was intercepted by plainclothes men,” recalls Baloch. “I was blindfolded and bundled into their vehicle. A 20-minute drive led us to a location where I was interrogated for almost four and a half hours. They constantly accused me of making derogatory remarks about the chief justice.”

While the interference of intelligence agencies to control and manoeuvre the message sent out by the media is not new, it has increased with the growth in the media industry.

“Intimidation is a threat that journalists encounter every day. Being on the frontline, they are soft targets,” says veteran journalist Qaiser Mehmood. According to him, there are three sources of threat: “State intimidation, intimidation by non-state actors, and even pressure from their own employer in the form of job insecurity. State intimidation can be resisted with protests but the graver threat emanates from non-state pressure groups.”

Political chaos, armed insurgencies led by Taliban militants in the North and Baluch separatists in the South, target killings in Karachi, and denial of access to the fields are only some of the challenges faced by journalists. As the room for reportage grows, so too does the imperative for strangling press freedom.

Dangerous liaisons — between political parties and journalists

Part of being a journalist is the responsibility of filing a great story without being intimidated by underlying threats. Danger is part of any story that is sensitive, controversial — and ultimately, worth being brought to the public’s attention. Wali Khan Babar, a reporter for Geo News, was onto just such a story at the time of his violent death in January. Shot five times at point-blank range while returning home from work, Babar, 28, covered an operation against a drug-peddler in the suburbs of Karachi that day.

His murder investigation led to nothing: in a press conference Karachi Police boasted of having arrested five men in connection with his murder. But there’s more to this case then just nabbing henchmen. Adil Jawad of Daily Express Newspaper gives a chilling account of how, one after another, four men, including two policemen, a brother of a police official and an informer, linked to the investigation were killed.

“The credit for the arrest of Wali Khan Babar’s killers goes to our government. Zulfiqar Mirza and I visited his family and promised to bring the culprits to task,” boasts Sharjeel Inam Memon, information minister of Sindh.

Babar was killed in Liaquatabad, a stronghold of the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and thus the blame automatically fell on them. MQM rejects the accusation: “This is an absolutely absurd allegation!” says MQM MNA Waseem Akhter. “Why on earth would we kill him and that too in our own area?”

Zaman Ibrahim, crime reporter of a daily newspaper, was also killed in Karachi this year. Ibrahim was gunned down in Lyari, an area notorious for gang warfare. He was believed to have had close ties with the now defunct People’s Amn Committee (PAC) — an affiliate of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. PAC is accused of violent tactics and with no appropriate investigation from the police for his killing, it is clear that Ibrahim’s stories might have rubbed one of the rival gangs operating in the neighbourhood the wrong way.

Danger on the frontline

It is not just investigative crime reporters who face danger — on the frontline, reporters risk life and limb to get accurate news out. Amin Shah, a Karachi-based TV news reporter, was critically wounded in a bomb blast on Chehlum last year at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi that killed at least 34 people. “Moments before, a bus full of Shia mourners had been blown by a bomb. I was waiting for my beeper when I was shaken by another blast behind me. A fracture in my head caused internal bleeding in my brain and paralysed the right side of my body for quite some time,” recalls Shah.

Like other victims of the blast, Shah failed to receive the compensation of Rs300,000, that had been announced by the Sindh Government; the paperwork required to get the compensation defeated him. “I was treated at the Agha Khan Hospital for 18 days but for this treatment only Rs100,000 were paid by Jameel Soomro from Information Department. The rest of the money I arranged on my own,” says Shah.

“Loss of life or an injury can’t really be compensated with money — but it provides some relief to the victim and his family. As long as the state fails to provide compensation, it becomes the responsibility of media houses to safeguard their employees with a hazard fund,” says Mehmood.

How media houses can help — or not

Tahir Hasan Khan, the president of the Karachi Press Club, laments that while media-houses expect journalists to be professional, few measures are adopted to facilitate them. “While we expect the government to be indifferent to the challenges that journalists face, we imagine that media outlets will be different. Surprisingly, even media houses are more concerned about their equipment than they are about reporters who put their lives at stake. Channels reap the benefits of ‘breaking news’ in the form of high-ratings and revenues — all at the cost of reporters,” says Hasan Khan.

He believes that the pressure for more information from their organisations compels reporters to take unnecessary risks, instead of following safety precautions. Print and television crews are working at great personal risk in significant danger. But this surge in danger doesn’t seem compelling enough for Pakistani news organisations and media outlets to train journalists for conflict reporting. War and terrorism require a set of rules governing how reporting crews should cover different events: when a story is too dangerous to cover, how close should a reporter get to the frontline, for example?

Despite its growth, Pakistani media remains at a nascent stage when it comes to journalists’ safety and hiring responsible human resources. Unlike journalists from developed countries, where personal safety training is mandatory, Pakistani journalists with minimum or no training continue performing their duties, especially in the conflict-prone tribal belt. They draw lessons from the field instead.

Hall of shame

Constitutional protection and legal safeguards to counter the dangerous climate affecting press freedom are almost non-existent here and Pakistan ranks 10th on the Index of Impunity created by the Committee to Protect Journalists. On the other hand, on the worldwide index of press freedom, it ranks 159th. What contributes even more to the fear is the fact that culprits remain at large and unpunished in most cases. According to Reporters Without Borders, as many as 14 journalists were murdered across Pakistan in 2010, including the first quarter of 2011. The International Press Institute put the number at 16 — out of this total, 6 belonged to the volatile province of Balochistan. In January this year, Ilyas Nazar’s bullet-riddled body was found in Pidarak. Nazar was a local reporter for Baloch magazine Darwanth. He went missing for some time before being killed. Abdost Rind, associated with The Daily Eagle was shot dead in February in Turbat while returning home from work. In both cases, the killers remain unidentified.

Hasan Abbas, general secretary of Karachi Union of Journalists says, “We don’t want to take up arms — I am a journalist not a criminal. My weapon is my pen with which I fight back. I can’t think of killing, even in self-defense.”

“The question is whether you can actually stop intimidation with laws or not. There are common laws for threats to life and security of every citizen — we can’t ask for separate laws for journalists. ‘Intimidation’ is actually a mindset which needs to be altered,” says Mehmood.

Reality bites

Despite these stories, the former Inspector General of Police in Sindh, Fayyaz Leghari seems out of touch with reality. “I don’t have any specific reason to cite as to why journalists in Karachi have been targeted frequently, other than terrorism,” he says.

This response crystallises the state’s apathy to the unsafe environment in which journalists work. In the past ten years, risks have escalated for Pakistani journalists due to growing militancy and the involvement of armed forces to counter it. But the government claims that it is doing all it can to compensate journalists’ woes.

“Pakistan is a good beat,” said Peter Oborne, a journalist with the Daily Telegraph and a documentary reporter with Channel 4, during a visit to Karachi. But it is the very nature of Pakistan’s newsworthiness which has made it so dangerous.“The war on terror has made journalists here more vulnerable. We in the West recognise and appreciate the inspirational and courageous stand of Pakistani journalists.”

It is clear that conflict training of media practitioners is the need of the day. Training not only enhances the understanding of journalists about their roles, it boosts their confidence and encourages independent decision-making.

“To safeguard the lives of journalists is the state’s responsibility but it is a responsibility which media houses should share. The equation is: we protect you and you expose the real culprits by reporting with objectivity,” declares Sharjeel Memon.

Can we speak freely?

FREEDOM OF SPEECH & RIGHT TO INFORMATION

Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan enshrines every individual with freedom of speech and the right of information.

Article 19:

Freedom of Speech

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be the freedom of press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or Defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, (commission of) or incitement to an offence.”

Article 19.A:

Right to Information

“Every citizen shall have the right to have access to
information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 3rd, 2011.

Reader Comments (5)

  • Paras Vikmani
    Jul 3, 2011 - 5:17PM

    South Asia is a hall of shame.Recommend

  • M.Akthar
    Jul 3, 2011 - 7:22PM

    Excellent Article..Recommend

  • Chengez K
    Jul 7, 2011 - 11:08PM

    What is confusing is that when Raymond Davis is caught all the world leading journalists working in New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post,Boston Globe hide the fact the Raymond is a CIA agent. In other words United States national interest is given priority over the freedom of expression.

    Here in Pakistan our journalists have not developed yet that critical balance.In the times of war journalists the world over work with their own security agenacies as it is the survival of their own country that is at stake. Here in Pakistan some of our jounalists speak as if they are in a third country on investigative queries on behalf of any fourth country.Recommend

  • Sajda
    Jul 8, 2011 - 8:38AM

    You raise the serious issue about journalist’s life. In our country the common is not even safe the government failed to provide protection to all citizen equal citizen. the other countries in the world the people life is save then journalist’s will automatically save.Recommend

  • siddiqui
    Jul 8, 2011 - 11:25PM

    seriously who cares… he is just another statistics like 90 others in khi…

    Recommend

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