To be a journalist in Pakistan

Published: February 3, 2013

The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

It is sometimes a surprise to outsiders — expecting censorship and oppression — that Pakistan has such a free and vibrant media. Speaking in 2010, the political theorist Noam Chomsky remarked that Pakistan’s media was less censored than in neighbouring India, generally described as the world’s largest democracy. “In Pakistan, I listened to and read the media which go to an increasingly large part of the population,” he said. “Apparently, the government is willing to say to the media that you have your fun, we are not going to bother you. So they don’t interfere with it.”

The faults of the current government may be many and various, but it has certainly done a lot to further freedom of expression, a right which is laid down in the Constitution of Pakistan. At times television channels and newspapers have been criticised for behaving unethically, but particularly in the last decade, they have played a significant role in uncovering corruption and acting as a check on power. Embezzlement in the Pakistan Railways, bribery leading to $500m losses at the Pakistan International Airlines, and the rental power projects corruption case were all unveiled by journalists.

However, while reporters critical of the government may face less official interference today than they did before the return to civilian rule in 2008, the picture is not universally positive. Last year, a United Nations report ranked Pakistan as the second-most dangerous country in the world for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent international body working for press freedom, ranked it as the most dangerous in both 2010 and 2011. Reporters Without Borders, another independent body, consistently ranks Pakistan in its top 10 most hazardous places for journalists. The high death toll in the profession explains why. Since 2000, more than 90 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, and hardly any of the cases have been solved. Someone was sentenced for the murder of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist kidnapped and killed in Karachi in 2002, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Most journalists dying in the pursuit of their profession are Pakistani citizens rather than foreign correspondents, and their killers have not been held to account. At least eight journalists were killed in the country in 2012 alone, including four in the month of May.

One of the murders that took place that month was of Razzaq Gul, an Express News correspondent who was found, riddled with bullets, in Balochistan. Some have alleged that the security forces were involved. Another was Abdul Qadir Hajizai, who was shot in the province by armed men on motorbikes, an attack thought to be carried out by the Baloch Liberation Front. A high profile example of the threat to journalists came late last year when a bomb was found in Hamid Mir’s car. It was blamed on the Taliban.

Anyone who has visited a newspaper office recently will be aware of the heightened risk. The attack on Malala Yousufzai in October saw sustained negative press for the Taliban. The extremist group promptly threatened media offices unless they got ‘balanced’ coverage, leading to ramped up security measures. It is unsurprising that the threat was not taken lightly. In June, Taliban gunmen had shot at the building of Aaj TV, an Urdu-language news channel, wounding two guards. The Taliban have warned repeatedly that media outlets will be targeted as long as coverage fails to reflect its positions and justifications.

The Human Rights Watch World Report, which came out this week, notes that “a climate of fear impeded media coverage of the state security forces and militant groups.” The report suggests that journalists avoid reporting on “human rights abuses by the military in counterterrorism operations”. The threat to journalists comes from terrorists, but also from the powerful security establishment. Politicians of all stripes are freely criticised in the media, but it is more unusual to read investigations into the military or its senior officers. There appears to be a level of self-censorship, whereby journalists know which areas they can push and which they can’t.

Pakistan is home to an array of violent militant groups, pushing for a greater hold on society. To an extent, the dangers faced by journalists are the same as those faced by every other citizen: an increasingly poor law and order situation where no one can really be protected. This is demonstrated by the fact that so many of last year’s journalist deaths took place in Balochistan, a province where the writ of law is practically non-existent after years of a bloody tussle between separatists and security services.

While non-state actors such as the Taliban, Baloch nationalists and other militant groups pose a threat to the freedom of Pakistan’s press, elements of the state itself also play a part. The military and intelligence establishment is over-powerful, and the relationships between state bodies are broadly dysfunctional. As well as the military and civilian divide, the struggle between the government and the judiciary has been well documented. An independent judiciary is a crucial part of a functioning democracy, and in some respects, the current outfit has fulfilled its task of acting as a check on governmental power. However, civil society campaigners have noted that the judiciary is actually impinging on free speech, using contempt of court laws to restrict the publication of negative stories about — you guessed it — the judiciary.

Against this context, is freedom of expression really possible? Most societies accept certain limits on free speech: for instance, wilfully misrepresenting facts, or inciting racial hatred. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws and considerations about morality set the parameters. That aside, there is a commendable commitment from the government to the principle of free speech and a free press. This is a fundamental part of a healthy democracy. But it is only one part. Another crucial aspect to a functioning civil society is law and order, and the safety of citizens. Until that can be guaranteed, it is likely that self-censorship on certain topics will continue. After all, journalists are only human.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2013.

Reader Comments (18)

  • Parvez
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:32PM

    Congratulations of quite a bold opinion piece.
    The press / media is supposed to function as a watch dog, a check-and-balance mechanism amongst other things in a society governed by the rule of law but in our environment it is at best regarded as a necessary nuisance or even as entertainment, despite all its efforts. The media has the power of moral force the correction aspect has to be done by the other pillars of the state and that is, putting it delicately an uphill task.

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  • Pakistani Ostrich
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:46PM

    “….the political.. theorist Noam Chomsky remarked that Pakistan’s media….blah…”

    Yes! This is the quality of journalism. Making suggestion to gullible pakistani reader as if Noam Chomsky is some world known personality. The sad fact is Noam Chomsky is not even well known on the campus of the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (aka MIT..famous for its engineering education, especially elecrical/electronics) where he teaches political science!

    I know it will sound strange, but more pakistanis know about Noam Chomsky than people of USA do or perhaps even the entire world combine! LOL! Another stanley wolpert in making!

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  • Pakistani Ostrich
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:49PM

    Addendum to previous comment:

    However, I do appreciate the brave journalists of pakistan like Saleem Shahzad (god bless his soul) and others such as najam sethi, this scribe and others.

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  • John B
    Feb 4, 2013 - 12:59AM

    Lack of censorship is not free speech.

    Media as a fourth estate has dual roles to play, as other three estates: assisting in good governance and exposing the faults of other estates for corrective measures. PAK media is active only in faults and criticisms (that too very shallow, no original investigative reporting, no follow up) and has completely forgot their role in good governance with citizen engagement.

    The security situation Is not unique to journalists and justifying self censorship on this basis is against the journalistic principles.

    .

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  • haroon
    Feb 4, 2013 - 4:01AM

    There should be more transparency and reporting on what the President does on a daily basis, after all, he is the President.
    There should be more transparency on what the COAS does and what his role is when it comes to deadly attacks happening in Baluchistan, Karachi, Peshawar and other cities.
    People in the media (such as yourself) should encourage political show hosts to learn how to conduct a show and not allow different guests to start yelling all at once and over each others’ voices. It looks more like a chatterbox zoo than a political show.
    Finally, the news that comes on every hour reports on people who die in different acts of violence throughout the country, then they talk about how major parties are giving this claim and that claim (which frankly is just a waste of air time), and to top it all off, you show some random fashion show or international even that has absolutely no bearing on the word “news”.

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  • Mika
    Feb 4, 2013 - 8:36AM

    Threat comes from being part of subversion that is why you see anyone in power killing the reporters.

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  • Go Zardari Go!!
    Feb 4, 2013 - 9:03AM

    Threat to journalists also comes from their need to fill their wallets. They are just a step above traffic cops.

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  • sabi
    Feb 4, 2013 - 9:09AM

    These innocent journalists killed in Pakistan were those whome their collegues mislead about freedom of media in the country.America,beside other good things,is home to the most clever conspiracy theorists.And these conspiracy theorists are darlings of deep state in Pakistan.An ordinary Pakistani is not aware of that and gets decieved by deep state.Noam Chomsky is from the same lot.How much space is given to free speech by media houses is open to everybody.You can talk about politicians in service but you can’t against generals in service.You can talk against minister but you can’t against pirs and mullahs.You can talk against scularism but you can’t in favour of secularism.This is what is known as -Suppression-not freedom.Thank you!.Recommend

  • Jim
    Feb 4, 2013 - 12:08PM

    Hasn’t the writer heard of lifafa journalists?

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  • waqar khan
    Feb 4, 2013 - 5:24PM

    While agreeing with the author on spirit of the article would tend to differ on two aspects, the author is probably missing the forest for a tree, if Pakistan is most dangerous place for journalists, what about general public, are we not in a state of war? Though not officially declared!! This 4th Generation war or the Long War was not our choice, a super power happens to be in our neighborhood and we are simply getting the heat generated by this long war.
    Second point relates to Noam Chomsky and some of the comments against him, Noam Chomsky is a respected scholar with following from MIT to Dhaka and from Moscow to Australia. Pakistani media has grown exponentially and is at the top of the golden 11( a group of 11 countries where media has grown at the fastest pace in the world),hats off to the media and hats of to all of us discussing things so openly here including those whom I like or those who hate my comments.
    Yes we need more professional journalism and i we know we are heading towards that and will be there very soon. Who gets the credit for the open media…,every body including Musharraf,Zardari and the people of Pakistan.

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  • Feb 4, 2013 - 5:28PM

    when self censorship aka fear factor has deep imprint in the mind, journalist can’t do justice to his job ? This fear will result / is resulting in wrong or distortion of facts/ manipulated reporting, depiction of events.
    madam, a certificate from Noam Chomsky of free media (when you fear to criticize army or judiciary) is disproved by yourselves. But gradually things will change for the better in due course .and i am sure about it.

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  • Hammad
    Feb 4, 2013 - 5:59PM

    @Pakistani Ostrich:
    Are you kidding?? Noam Chomsky is at least as well known as Christopher Hitchens in the US. He is also extremely well recognized for his theory on language development. Just because you’re ignorant, don’t assume others to be the same.

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  • Usman Ghani
    Feb 4, 2013 - 9:55PM

    I appreciate to those press reporters who loose their life while performing their duties, But, i also wanna mention to the purely negative role & hypocrasy of our media who always trying to create
    sensational inside the listeners & vieweres. Its recently example set by Mubashar Luqman & Mehar Bukhari which is very cheap job. It will not be false to say the job below the belt.

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  • Mirza
    Feb 4, 2013 - 10:45PM

    A bold and fair Op Ed. My previous comments were not included. Just want to say thanks for a great Op Ed.

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  • gp65
    Feb 4, 2013 - 11:25PM

    “It is sometimes a surprise to outsiders — expecting censorship and oppression — that Pakistan has such a free and vibrant media. Speaking in 2010, the political theorist Noam Chomsky remarked that Pakistan’s media was less censored than in neighbouring India, generally described as the world’s largest democracy.”

    Do you have any objective support for this statement or we are supposed to treat Noam Chomsky’s opinions as facts?

    The facts I know would tell me it is just the other way. Specifically, in India not only can the media speak freely against government but also against self certified spiritual leaders like Asaram Bapu, against corruption or problems in armed forces.
    Youtube is not banned. There indeed are a couple of insurgencies in India just like in Pakistan but there is no instance of journalists having been killed due to writing about insurgency. While journalists are very wary in talking about sectarian attacks or oppression of Ahmadis on TV media, it is the Indian largely Hindu dominated media that did not allow Gujarat riots to be forgotten until 34 people have been actually sentenced.

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  • Pakistani Ostrich
    Feb 4, 2013 - 11:30PM

    @Hammad

    “..Are you kidding?? Noam Chomsky is at least as well known as Christopher Hitchens in the US..”

    Walk around any “liberal” campus in US or even Europe and ask about Noam NoBodyKnows Chomsky and Christopher Higgins to anybody but pakistanis and find it out your self. Any pakistani students who are in US/Europe why don’t you try yourself? I will eat crow, if i have to!! (remember..ask non-pakistanis)
    P.S. Noam Chomsky is an linguist but he thinks him to be “master of all”!!

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  • gp65
    Feb 4, 2013 - 11:31PM

    @Hammad:
    “Are you kidding?? Noam Chomsky is at least as well known as Christopher Hitchens in the US.”

    100% correct Chomsky is well known as can be seen simply by going to his facebook site and seeing the number of Likes.
    However, just because someone is popular does not mean that their opinions qualify as facts without any supporting evidence.

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  • Loki
    Feb 5, 2013 - 3:46AM

    @haroon:
    There is nothing wrong in showing fashion shows or international shows because fashion shows are part of our showbiz industry

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