Journalists under attack

Updated 11 Sep 2014


PAKISTAN’S journalists are making news again. In Quetta, they are desperately protesting against the killing of their colleagues, and trying to persuade the authorities to reduce the risks to their security. In Islamabad they appear to be pursuing a less laudable objective.

Both instances highlight the seriousness of the hazards the country’s working journalists are facing. That should alarm all those who value the right of media persons to inform the people and the latter’s right to know.

The pattern of threats the journalist community faces has been brought out in Reporting under threat, a recently launched study. Adnan Rehmat has collected the accounts of 57 journalists who have faced life threats or have been exposed to deadly risks. Forty-eight of them have narrated their brush with death in their own words while stories of nine deceased journalists have been recalled by friends.

Know more: Journalists’ murder

A territorial breakdown of the 57 stories offers significant pointers. The largest single group of victims — 18 — is from Sindh, a fact understandable in view of the thug-raj in Karachi. Balochistan, with 17 stories, comes next. But considering the relatively small number of publications and journalists in Balochistan, the media persons there face the highest level of hazard.

Media persons are victims not only of those hostile to their calling, they are also targeted by ‘friendly’ patrons.

The other stories are from: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nine; Punjab, five; the tribal areas, four; Islamabad, three; and Afghanistan, one. Three of the deceased journalists belonged to Balochistan, another three to KP and two to the tribal areas. The fact that Punjab, that has the largest journalist community of any province, has reported less than one-third of the number of victims from Sindh or Balochistan reinforces the widespread impression that the provincial authority there has mastered the secret of keeping the media community contented or the forces that wish to suppress the truth can achieve their objective without threatening journalists.

These testimonies may not tell us about the circumstances in which more than 200 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 2000, but they do throw sufficient light on the sources and nature of the threats faced by journalists. The politicians in power, security agencies and the police do not want the disclosure of any fact that could hurt them. Likewise, militant, extremist and criminal gangs make similar demands on media persons. And both sides have the means to capture journalists, detain and torture them, forcing them to surrender or consider giving up their profession altogether.

No journalist worth his salt will be party to the suppression of the truth, and this is confirmed by the heroism of many journalists profiled in the study but even more dangerous and harmful to society is the demand to report lies, falsehood and half-truths that both law-enforcers and lawbreakers make on journalists.

The situation is particularly bad in the conflict zones where journalists are often denied access to the theatre of conflict and the people affected. They can question the version offered by the security forces or the militants only at great peril to themselves. How many people are killed in armed encounters, what are the identities of the victims, and to what extent was the use of force unavoidable? These are questions the people are left to speculate on. One of the hazards Pakistani journalists face is their use, known to them or otherwise, in spreading disinformation and thus forcing people to base their judgements on the basis of heavily doctored narratives.

The journalists are victims not only of elements that do not conceal their hostility to their calling, they are often targeted by ‘friendly’ patrons. The art of using journalists for making what is not true appear credible has been greatly developed over the past many decades. Some of this can be seen in the media, especially electronic media, coverage of the dharnas in Islamabad.

Political economist Akbar Zaidi may be right in suggesting that the dharnas will end the moment the TV crews pull out of the anarchy zone in Islamabad but his prescription envisages interference with the media’s right to report whatever is happening in the country that any democrat or defender of citizens’ rights is unlikely to endorse. But the way a part of the media is lapping up libellous stories and scandals supplied to it by none-too-secret hands has no precedent in the history of Pakistani journalism. It constitutes as serious an attack on the integrity of the media and media persons as setting up an ambush for Saleem Shahzad or Hamid Mir.

The government, political parties, militants and even land grabbers can present their point of view by issuing statements, publishing pamphlets or buying time on the electronic media. The people will know who is saying what and the message will not carry the stamp of authenticity that only journalists of standing can provide.

This is not to deny the right of media houses or journalists to side with a political faction. But even party organs and partisan propagandists are subject to certain rules of fair play. They may try to give their favourites more exposure and their rivals much less time but a conscious audience will have no difficulty in finding them out. The distinction between exposure of political rivals and scandal-mongering need not be blurred. The Islamabad melodrama has vulgarised the political idiom and the media is not free from blame.

One threat the media faces is the pressure from the vested interest or manipulators of information to distort reality. The channels did not have to wait for the floods before telling their viewers that dharnas were not the only things happening in the country. The abuse of public information space for personal vendetta or for the love of lucre is as serious an attack on the media and journalists as a militant’s diktat to a Quetta journalist to report only what he orders.

In a way, the media’s travails reflect the political profile of Pakistan — the takeover of public space by mafias, some armed with guns, others with venom, while people’s rights and truth are nobody’s concern.

Published in Dawn, September 11th , 2014