Reporting Under Threat: The story of journalism in Pakistan

Updated April 25, 2014

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-Poster for Reporters without Borders.
-Poster for Reporters without Borders.

Despite the high casualty rate, little is known of the dangerous conditions in which journalists operate in Pakistan, the risks they take and the often steep price they pay to be the guardians of public interest.

Islamabad-based writer and analyst Adnan Rehmat hopes to change that by bringing forward personal testimonies of several dozen journalists from across the country.

Pakistan has been selected as one of five pilot countries of the world for implementation of a UN Plan of Action on Impunity Against Journalists because the country is considered one of the most dangerous countries of the world to practice journalism. Nearly 70 journalists have been killed in the last six years in Pakistan at an average of one every month – the worst average for any country of the world for this period.

Adnan Rehmat has a journalism background dating back to 1989 and has worked as a reporter, editor and manager of newspapers, radio operations and news agencies. A political analyst and media development specialist, he has been promoting greater professionalism in the media since 2003.

Besides being on the boards of several developments sector organisations, he is currently Director Media Development at Civic Action Resources. He had authored several research reports on media, but “Reporting Under Threat” is his first book.


Xari Jalil: What gave you the idea of working on this issue?

Adnan Rehmat: For over 15 years I’ve been voluntarily tracking attacks against media and violence that journalists face, mapping trends and teasing out causes. Chronicling violations against the media, I’ve literally written dozens of articles and analyses about it that have been published in national and international journals.

However, after several years of this work, I realised that it is me speaking about the plight of journalists, while we hear very little from the jorunalists themselves. I’ve been meaning to produce bringing the voices of jorunalists to a non-media audience and in recent months managed to do it with help from some friends and colleagues.

X J: How did the ground work start for the book?

A R: I’ve been advocating for greater professionalism of the media as a means of minimising the risk framework that journalists operate in and was struck by the wide gap in perception of people about the dangers journalists face and how media practitioners are seen as being infallible.

And compounding this was the irony that journalists are such good storytellers when talking about others but hopeless when it comes to talking about themselves and their lives. To do something about reducing this gap in perception, particularly on the issue of attacks against them,

I decided to document first-person singular testimonies of journalists so that the intimacy of this format could help people see journalists as ordinary people taking extraordinary risks for others.

I want the beleaguered, battered but brave journalists of Pakistan to be unwept, unsung no more.

X J: What were your limitations in the gathering of information?

A R: There were a number of challenges. Choosing stories that were representative of the media sample was the first. Hence I decided that we needed not about a dozen but several dozen. I went for 50 and managed to get 57 stories.

The second was geographic diversity. I wanted to go beyond just the Tribal Areas and Balochistan – the two regions we get most reports about. And yet, my research showed that there were more attacks in Sindh than in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and more in Balochistan than in the Tribal Areas.

So, we got stories from all regions, even Islamabad. The third was speaking about a variety of threats – so I made an effort to include accounts of murder, kidnapping, detention and arrest, torture, physical and verbal assault, etc. Because the country is big and first-person interviews are important, we roped in colleagues who sat down with pre-selected journalists all over the country, took them into confidence and documented their personal, intimate testimonies.


X J: Were the journalists easy to locate? Did they want to talk? Were there any who refused to talk till the end?

A R: The journalists were easy to locate because my organisation Civic Action Resources and l work with press clubs and jorunalists unions all over Pakistan and I have good relationships with them.

Most agreed to talk immediately but some important ones were hard to convince to open up, especially some of the most well-known journalists in the country. They refused even though they had heartbreaking and important stories to tell.

Some well-known ones such as Hamid Mir, Asma Shirazi and Kamal Siddiqui were gracious and forthcoming. Others who initially declined we gave them the option to remain anonymous or to use an alias. Some took this option.


X J: In a country where everyone is being killed, why do the deaths of journalists matter in a larger context?

A R: I see the attack on journalists as an attack not just on individuals but an attack on freedom of expression, and therefore an attack on civil society and the very state itself.

There is a pattern. Over 100 journalists have been killed since 2000 and over 2,000 injured, assaulted, kidnapped, arrested, tortured and intimidated in various ways. That’s a high percentage when considering that in a country of 200 million people there are only 18,000 journalists.

In a multi-national, multi-linguist, multi-sectarian, multi-religious, multi-ethnic state it is important that jorunalists are safe so that all these political pluralisms can be heard and assert their stakeholding in the fragile state.

Without a safe media and safer journalists, it’s not just the media at threat but the entire society.

X J: What do you feel is the future of safety of journalists especially with a target list announced by the Taliban?

A R: As the testimonies in my book reveal, and also the attack on Hamid Mir demonstrates, jorunalists face threats from not just the Taliban but a variety of actors – political parties, religious factions, militant groups, the police and state security agencies and even civil society groups.

Journalists are in double jeopardy – they not only operate in a violent environment in Pakistan, by the very nature of their work, they make enemies and make themselves vulnerable.

I think Pakistani journalists live dangerously unnecessarily by not having a consensus strategy to counter the risks they take, most of them preventable.

X J: Do you feel the media itself has a contradictory stance in protecting its interests?

A R: Sadly, yes.

The disjointed reactions by various media houses to the recent attacks against Hamid Mir, Imtiaz Alam and Raza Rumi show that journalists will remain easy targets and vulnerable precisely because they are not united.

There is no safety strategy developed by neither the journalists representatives such as the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, nor by associations of the media sector such as the All Pakistan Newspaper Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors or Pakistan Broadcasters Association.

The only silver lining is a new platform, the Pakistan Coalition of Media Safety (PCOMS) that is seeking to evolve a national strategy on media safety, safety protocols for media houses and lobbying for appointment of a special prosecutor to take on cases of attacks against the media.