Journalism in Pakistan: Where the sword is mightier than the pen...
“How was your weekend?” a colleague asked me.
“Terrible.” I answered.
“Oh! Why so?” he inquired.
I was sad and nostalgic. I told him that on Friday evening, I had received a message on Skype which said that the late Arif Shafi would have turned 38-years-old and that was when my mood had changed and become so gloomy. Confused, my colleague asked,
“But who was Arif Shafi?”
I didn’t know how to answer him.
The fact is that I had never known Shafi personally. He and I had exchanged a few emails two years back while he was working on a feature story on the threats that journalists face in Pakistan. During our correspondence, I found him to be inquisitive and ambitious with a genuine drive to dig out facts – allthe qualities of a good journalist.
However, life never really works out the way we plan, does it? Some time after our initial correspondence, fate struck its deadly blow and the 37-year-old Shafi lost his life in a bomb blast at University Road in Peshawar on April 29, 2013.
No one knows who was responsible for the bomb blast that killed Shafi and injured several others. According to investigations, the bomb was attached to a motorcycle. The news of his death came only two weeks after another journalist, Tariq Aslam, was killed in a suicide attack at a political party’s election rally in Peshawar on April 16, 2013.
Peshawar was once the headquarters for Afghan and Arab Jihadists and now it serves as a haven for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Hence, it is safe to assume that the city’s conditions have always been volatile and these attacks, though tragic, weren’t completely unprecedented.
Nonetheless, Tariq Aslam wasn’t the first journalist to lose his life in Pakistan and unfortunately, Arif Shafi won’t be the last either. Journalists have been living under life-threatening conditions for a long time.
In June 2011, amongst the 36 people who died in a suicide bombing at Khyber Supermarket in Peshawar, two were journalists. Asfandyar Khan, who worked for an Urdu newspaper and Shafiullah, a young graduate who had only recently joined an English daily at its Peshawar office as a trainee reporter, were both casualties in an attack that was not meant to target them. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The attack was well-coordinated since the perpetrators used twin blasts – the first was a cracker bomb which exploded near the market so that people would gather around the site and the second was a suicide bombing that happened minutes later while the crowd was busy helping those who were injured in the first attack.
Lives of so many innocent people were lost that day.
While the three ill-fated journalists – Arif Shafi, Asfandyar Khan and Shafiullah – were not the direct targets of the attacks that took their lives, there have been several instances where journalists have been directly targeted. They have been threatened, beaten up and killed both, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).
Tribal journalist Nasrullah Afridi, with whom I have filed several stories on the Khyber Agency, was killed in a car bombing on May 10, 2011. His car was parked in the same Khyber Supermarket area and the bomb went off as soon as Afridi ignited the engine.
Khyber Supermarket is usually frequented by media persons and students alike. It is located in the city’s cantonment area, which houses several offices of private newspapers and television channels. Thus, the market can be a key location for anyone who wishes to attack journalists.
Like many such cases, Afridi’s murder has also become a story of the past. As is done, his death was followed by a few protests from the journalist community across Pakistan, some statements condemning the attack by media organisations, rallies by the civil society with words of sympathy to the families and hollow rhetoric of justice by the government.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Pakistan is high on the list of countries declared ‘most dangerous’ for journalists. The figures circulated by the New York-based body suggest that 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992.
Most of the time, the motive behind the killing and the perpetrators of the attack are known.
For example, an extremist group boldly claimed responsibility for bombing the Peshawar Press Club on December 22, 2009 which killed four people and injured several others along with spreading a wave of terror among many Peshawar-based journalists. The attack was a well-planned effort to target some key figures in the city’s journalist community as was mentioned in the claim made later by the extremist group.
Another such attack, whose responsibility was openly claimed by the TTP, was when Voice of America’s Pashto-language radio correspondent, Mukarram Khan Atif, was killed on January 17, 2012.
Atif hailed from the Mohmand Agency and I personally knew him to be a good person. He was at a mosque near his house to offer his evening prayer when he was shot dead. Later, one of his family members told me that Atif had been contributing a part of his monthly salary to reconstruct and renovate the very mosque where he was killed.
The recent attacks on Express News were also the TTP’s doing and they warned the media group of more such attacks.
In late March this year, prominent anchor, blogger and columnist Raza Rumi, was attacked in Lahore by ‘unknown’ assailants. Rumi was lucky enough to survive but his driver succumbed to injuries.
Similarly, in early April, journalist Jamshed Baghwan, was attacked at his residence in Peshawar. The bureau chief of the Express News in Peshawar and a former colleague of mine, Baghwan told me that he has no feud with anyone. When I called him to express my sympathies, he said,
“My family and children are terrified.”
Baghwan said that the government had offered to deploy police for his security but according to him,
“How is it possible for a journalist to dispense his professional responsibilities while being accompanied by guards?”
Unable to arrest and punish those involved in threatening and killing journalists, the provincial government in K-P is considering issuance of arms licenses to media persons.
Is this a viable solution to face the threat? A majority of the community doesn’t thinks so.
In an off-the-record conversation between one of my reporters and a government official, the official said that they are considering issuance of arms licenses to businessmen, traders and journalists According to the official, the business community in the province is ready to accept the arms license but journalists in Peshawar have rejected the proposal outright. Doctors in the province have already been allowed to carry arms by the provincial government.
Mr Khalid Keshgi, former general secretary of the Khyber Union of Journalists (KhUJ) in Peshawar, who is currently on a visit to the US, said to me in a conversation on Skype,
“How can a journalist carry arms while rushing from place to place? We are not a party to whatever is going on in the country. We don’t know our enemy. Anyone can target a journalist very easily. Weapons may help to guard us from robbers and thieves but not from target killers and suicide bombers.”
Kheshgi’s point is quite understandable. Arif Shafi, Nasrullah Afridi, Asfandyar Khan and Shafiullah would not have survived the attacks even if they had been armed.
What the journalist community in FATA, Peshawar and the rest of Pakistan demands is legal protection. Wali Khan Babar, the Karachi-based journalist at a private television news channel, was the only one amongst 54 killed in Pakistan whose case was brought to justice and that too quite recently.
However, the killers of Mukarram Khan Atif, Ibrahim Khan and the perpetrators of the Peshawar Press Club (PPC) bombing in 2009, who blatantly claimed responsibility for the attacks, have yet to be arrested and brought to justice.
Alongside this, investigations into the killing of Waziristan-based journalists, Allah Noor and Amir Nawab Hayatullah Khan, Janullah Hashemzada, Musa Khan Khel, Saleem Shahzad and Malik Mumtaz have yet to be solved.
However, to expect justice from a state and its security agencies whose own track record is questionable when it comes to dealing with journalists, particularly those reporting from FATA and parts of south-eastern Balochistan, is delusional thinking.
As a reporter who has worked in both, Afghanistan and Pakistan and has extensively reported from FATA, I have seen several of my close colleagues getting killed and then forgotten in the flurry of the ‘breaking news’ culture of Pakistani media. But how can I turn my eyes away from that Skype message which asks me if I want to send a birthday wish to Arif Shafi, a promising journalist from my hometown?
I’m sorry Shafi but I can’t send you a wish on your 38th birthday. I wish I could but I can’t – your murderers have made sure of that. But I promise that I will pray that your soul rests in peace.
I will not let your legacy die; I will not let people forget you. Your murderers need to be brought to justice and until that happens, the journalist community will continue its silent struggle against oppression.
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