Today is Press Freedom Day and many countries across the globe are cheering their good fortune at having environments where their media operates mostly without fear or favour. Pakistan is not one of them. At least 118 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1947, no less than 80 since the year 2000 and at least 15 in the last 15 months. The staggering average for the last 12 years comes to a journalist killed every 50 days. Virtually all were killed for their work. How did it come to this?
Numbing though these figures are, there are ‘reasons’ for the large numbers of journalists losing their lives in the last decade here.
The rise of terrorism and militant conflict in Pakistan since 2001 has paralleled the heady expansion in the media sector in the same period. About 80% of the media of today didn’t exist when 9/11 happened. The number of TV channels in Pakistan has gone from one in 2002 to about 100 in 2012 and radio stations from one to nearly 150 now. And the community of journalists has grown from a membership of 2,000 to over 17,000 today.
A big, fat war of international dimensions spilling over from Afghanistan into Pakistan meant covering the myriad deadly conflicts that were triggered as a result of this to fill up the airwaves.
It didn’t help that a large number of those who signed up for careers in media weren’t formally qualified (the paltry numbers of journalism schools at universities being neither enough nor equipped with the right courses and faculties) nor trained (our media houses are generally disinclined to invest in training their staff for fear of losing them to their competition) to report war.
The result: many (no less than 44 of the 80 killed) lost their lives reporting conflict from places with the greatest militancy – largely Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan – where both sharing and concealing information came to be a deadly vocation in varying measures.
The number of journalists not killed but who were nonetheless attacked, injured, kidnapped, arrested and threatened over their work number over a thousand.
Of the 80 killed since the year 2000, at least 32 journalists were shot dead in target killings, eight were kidnapped by militants – of which three were tortured to death, their bodies badly mutilated – while three were beheaded, including Daniel Pearl – the case even non-journalists in Pakistan and abroad know about.
No less than a dozen died in suicide attacks that were probably not meant to target them specifically but in which they nonetheless died while on official duty.
But probably worse than these needless 80 deaths, killings and murders of journalists is the environment of impunity in Pakistan. The killers of how many of these journalists have been indicted, prosecuted and convicted? Only one – that of Daniel Pearl’s. Virtually all who died were reporters. Some were cameramen. No owner of a media enterprise that hires these journalists was killed.
A large majority of those killed were not regularised staff and operated as contract employees. Most were from middle and lower middle classes. So if they were not regular employees or they did not come from affluent backgrounds, is it a surprise that neither did their organisation pick up responsibility for pursuing justice for them nor their families could wage a war against the deadly enemies? Not only have the federal and provincial governments but the very state itself has failed to bring the killers of these journalists to justice – the state itself is suspect in some of the cases.
Pakistan has come a long way from the days when information flows were overtly controlled by the state and freedom of expression severely restricted. But while the media may be free now in Pakistan, so are those who gain to lose by media freedoms and pluralisms. The ratings speak loudly: Reporters Sans Frontieres ranks Pakistan 151 out of 179 countries in its 2012 Press Freedom Index, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it the world’s 8th worst case in its 2012 Impunity Index and Freedom House lists it at 144 out of 197 countries in its Freedom of the Press 2012 ranking. What’s there to celebrate on Press Freedom Day in Pakistan?
Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2012.