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Defending journalists

November 30, 2017

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THE international conference on ensuring security for journalists and ending impunity held recently in Islamabad was well worth the effort as it focused not only on the hazards the media community faces in Pakistan, and other countries plagued by internal strife, but also on ways of overcoming them.

The conference was built around a report, Defending Journalism, on the effectiveness of safety mechanisms and other national initiatives designed to protect journalists in seven countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Iraq and Colombia.

Released a month ago, the study has been compiled by International Media Support (IMS), a Danish organisation that implements, in partnership with the International Federation of Journalists, a Danish government project called ‘Promoting the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity’.

The report finds that all the seven states studied are dangerous countries for journalists and laments the general lack of awareness of the UN plan of action on the protection of journalists. It also takes note of good practices. These include formation of an active federation of journalists in Afghanistan that operates through the national human rights commission. In the case of Pakistan, the report takes note of the formation in 2012 of the Pakistan Consortium for Media Safety (PCMS) by “prominent journalists, civil society organisations, media associations and Unesco”. Mention is also made of Editors for Safety.

Nobody will protect journalists until they demonstrate their capacity to reclaim their rights.

Perhaps the liveliest part of the conference was oral presentation of stories of successful national mechanisms to protect journalists and fight impunity. After he had presented the highlights of the IMS report, Ranga Kalansooria, the well-known Sri Lankan campaigner for freedom of expression, threw light on what has been happening in his country.

We know how notorious the previous regime had become for its excesses against the media and journalists. The present regime not only attached priority to the protection of journalists but also withdrew the cover of impunity from those who had persecuted journalists. As a result, quite a few army officers and other state functionaries were in jail. This was possible because the government asserted its will to carry out its duty.

Asked as to what special law the government had employed to indict the journalists’ tormentors, he said no special law was made, nor was one necessary, because the Penal Code was adequate to meet all situations. The Pakistani defenders of journalists’ rights may note that their Penal Code too may not be inadequate.

Ainuddin from Afghanistan spoke with passion of the struggles the journalists’ federation of Afghanistan had made before being acknowledged as a legitimate defender of the journalists’ right to protection. They received valuable support from the state human rights commission. The confidence and clarity with which Ainuddin spoke made some Pakistanis wonder as to how long it would take Afghanistan to surpass Pakistan in its ability to sustain a vibrant and free media,

Finally, Toby Mendel described the great help the Nepalese journalists had received from their national human rights commission which had created a directive committee, with one commission member on it, to develop policies and a plan of action. It had also set up an action team to promptly deal with journalists’ complaints and report to the directive committee. That amounted to putting in place a fairly functional national mechanism to guarantee media persons’ protection.

The conference offered Pakistan’s media community valuable lessons that could guide them in establishing an effective national mechanism for their protection and also in assailing the culture of impunity.

Their first task obviously is to establish unity in their ranks through, as far as possible, reactivated unions. They should also strive to persuade the employers and editors/ controllers of programmes at TV channels, and especially the Editors for Safety, to support them at least on an issue-to-issue basis. Civil society’s presence in their organisations, such as the PCMS, may be strengthened. And any such organisation should be known for its dynamic functioning according to its charter and it should also work consistently to engage the national human rights institutions, and win the admiration of the people, if not their active support.

The key to journalists’ success lies with the custodians of state power whose resolve to protect journalists is decisive. But nobody will defend and protect journalists until they demonstrate their capacity to reclaim their rights.

The Pakistani organisers of the conference, Freedom Network, also released on the occasion two brief reports on lack of security for journalists in the country. One of these reports, Blackout in Balochistan: Media Reporting in Fear, Living under Threat, describes the ordeal of journalists in that province after they were told by the security authorities not to publish anything about the insurgents and their militant supporters and the latter’s harsh response. The report refers to censorship, both official and self-imposed, threats to journalists and hawkers and newspaper stall owners, and non-circulation of newspapers — indeed, a grim picture of denial of freedom of expression and unbearable threats to journalists in Balochistan.

The other study, Zero Conviction, tells us about the fate of the seven cases of murder or attempt to murder of journalists reported during a single year, November 2016 to October 2017. The state did not file an FIR in any case. All FIRs were filed by the victims or their families, and their failure to name the culprits became the police’s excuse for not expediting the investigations.

However, in three cases challans were submitted while in one case — the killing of a TV channel reporter, Abdul Razzaq, in May this year — the file was closed when the Punjab government declared that the suspected culprit had been killed in an encounter. While the authors’ complaint of lack of support in such cases from employers and fellow journalists is justified, it is unrealistic to expect that a criminal prosecution can result in a conviction within a year of the occurrence.

Both of these reports deserve to be studied not only by media persons and their organisations but also by policymakers and state institutions charged with the protection of basic rights.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2017