DURING the last few decades, journalists have been at the receiving end of the most egregious kind of violence in Pakistan. Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, an occasion to once again highlight the danger, indeed sometimes the mortal peril, that media persons here have to contend with — and the sheer indifference by the state that ensures its perpetuation. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000 for reasons confirmed as being related to their work; that is, either in direct reprisal, during the course of an assignment, or in crossfire while covering combat situations. The most recent to fall in the line of duty were TV cameramen Shehzad Ahmed and Mehmood Khan, killed in the devastating bomb blast at the Quetta Civil Hospital on Aug 8 which also claimed the lives of some 70 lawyers. The manner of their deaths in a terrorist attack is unfortunately one that many journalists in today’s Pakistan have to risk on a regular basis, with their job — almost by default — putting them in harm’s way even when safety precautions are taken.
But what to say of the targeted killings — murders that have silenced journalists investigating crime and corruption, or singled out those perceived as being ‘biased’ against one or other competing power centres — that go virtually uninvestigated, let alone punished? To date, only in three such murders, those of Daniel Pearl, Wali Babar and Ayub Khattak, has anyone been held accountable. It is a fact undeniable that this country is a minefield for journalists. They are menaced by a number of actors, both state and non-state, and in ways that can be unmistakably direct or subtly coercive. Either way, these tactics have led to far too many deadly consequences among the journalist community. A pernicious effect of the government doing little more than mouthing platitudes every time a media person is killed, is the pall that descends upon the profession as a whole. Stories that should be investigated — those that define the media’s oversight role — fall by the wayside; the shackles of self-censorship curb important critiques of the state’s actions and embolden obscurantist elements. Notwithstanding the many problems that beset the practice of journalism in Pakistan today and the raucous free-for-all that often characterises news coverage, an independent media that is secure in its role, is critical to a democratic polity.
Published in Dawn November 2nd, 2016