Veteran journalist Shahzada Zulfiqar is almost mid-way through his third stint as president at the Quetta Press Club in a province where it is preferable to stay silent to remain alive.
In Balochistan, a good story is not one that is well-documented by local reporters. Instead, it is one that mitigates risk. Local journalists think twice about doing stories likely to infuriate state and non-state actors, making self-censorship the norm.
Journalists are often summoned for a ‘cup of tea’ with intelligence officials, adept at monitoring and criticising reporters, according to Mr Zulfiqar. He has been warned a number of times against sharing his political views.
Another Baloch journalist, living in exile, explains: “It is strange living away from Pakistan yet being dominated professionally by fear. For every article I write, I spike ten others. It’s intellectual genocide. I’m not writing Jihadi literature. Jihadi supporters have all the freedom of expression, even on television. I have respect for human rights, peace and reconciliation. Why can’t I pursue my profession?”
The Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) claims 41 journalists have been targeted in the province since 2008. Much is dictated informally by the state, militants and the military, say those in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Fata.
Pakistan has been ranked 147 on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, and fallen by more than 10 per cent on the “media environment and self-censorship” indicator from 2013 to date.
As independent news coverage is precarious for privately-owned media because of threats by religious groups and militants, as well as a large-scale propaganda machinery under the state, the media resorts to self-censorship.
Impunity for offences against the media has been rising because the government avoids prosecution of suspects linked to the state or militant groups, according to Bob Dietz, Asia Programme Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Although independent local reporters were close to the frontline (Waziristan) in 2002, they were unprepared to report on a war that was being fought on their home turf.
More than a decade later, the media is still under constraints because the reporting done at the height of the “war on terror” continues to invite threats and warnings.
‘Lake of crocodiles'
The 2005 murder of North Waziristan-based Hidayatullah Khan, after he photographed fragments of a US-made Hellfire missile that killed Al Qaeda’s Hamza Rabia, is a case in point. Contradicting the government’s version was anathema to the authorities.
Like Hidayatullah, Safdar Dawar too hails from from Miramshah, North Waziristan. As a former president of the Tribal Union of Journalists [2011 and 2012], he has defied the Taliban’s ‘directives’.
The time when he refused to expel member journalists, branded by the Taliban as spies working for VOA and Mashaal Radio, was unnerving. Covering Fata after 2002 was akin to “reporting from a lake of crocodiles”.
The sight of resident Taliban leaders sauntering into the Miramshah press club was not unusual. On the other side, the Taliban don’t see journalists as neutral and unbiased, having silenced quite a few for allegedly writing against them (Zaman Mehsud was killed in November).
Tweeting a warning that “everyone will get their turn in this war, especially the slave Pakistani media”, they have supposedly made hit-lists naming journalists.
Owais Aslam Ali, from the Pakistan Press Foundation, ascribes the fall in the number of journalists killed (two killed between May 2015 and May 2016) to the growing self-censorship. In spite of the falling number of deaths, the threat level has intensified, according to the CPJ.
“Killings have certainly not ended. Numbers fall into the same statistical range of the past decade, some years are worse than others. Balochistan has emerged as a danger spot, or at least the world has become more aware of its terrible situation. Suspected perpetrators come from the same pool of malevolent actors,” Mr Dietz explains.
“The government either cannot or will not stop the problem, despite their blandishments and concern. At the management level, the Whatsapp-based Editors for Safety (EfS), is a good example of an indigenous initiative required,” Mr Dietz says. Launched in December 2015, this initiative has a clear objective: an attack on an individual media professional or organisation is an attack on the entire media.
The new threat to the media comes from informal government directives on dissemination of information.
“Instructions by Pemra under the code of conduct are a disguised form of the draconian ‘press advices’, reminiscent of the Ayub era. The media has far more experience to allow the government to interfere in coverage. The directive to ‘act responsibly’ cannot be interpreted as asking for a blackout,” Mr Ali concludes.
There have been convictions to date for the murder of four journalists — Daniel Pearl, Wali Khan Babar, Abdul Razzak Johra and Ayub Khattak. Last year, Rasool Dawar stopped reporting on militancy and security issues after being detained and interrogated on multiple occasions about his stories. He refused to disclose ‘70 per cent of what happened’ to him, in February last year.
“You will read ‘another journalist killed by unknown assailants’ if I tell you everything,” he said. He’d been reporting from North Waziristan since 2007.
The reality that journalists are increasingly becoming characters in their own stories is a bad sign for media.
World Press Freedom Day is being observed today (May 3).
Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2016