THE security climate for media and rights activists in Pakistan is rapidly deteriorating — and the state appears unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The attack and allegedly failed abduction attempt on Taha Siddiqui, an independent, Islamabad-based journalist, on Wednesday was appalling in its brazenness. According to Mr Siddiqui, he was stopped en route to the airport by unidentified armed men, beaten and threatened to be shot. Mr Siddiqui was fortunate to escape and his version of events has not been refuted with evidence by the authorities or witnesses. The attack is only the latest in a string of deeply troubling events that suggest anti-free speech and anti-democratic forces in the country are growing bolder in their attempts to muzzle media and rights activists. Unless the media forges a united front against such attacks, there are likely to be more incidents — and there can be no guarantee that the level of violence will not escalate. Previous unexplained deaths of journalists and activists are a grim reminder that restraint by murky but powerful forces cannot be expected.
The media itself needs to urgently reconsider its approach to the safety of journalists in the country. Partisan rancour in the media is at a historic high but that does not necessarily pose an existential threat to journalism. In a fiercely divided polity and the age of social media, there are many factors that are contributing to a decline in the quality of independent, fair and truthful journalism by professional media organisations. But when it comes to safety, there should be complete unity. Trite as it may sound, an attack against one journalist is an attack against all journalists. At various points in the country’s history, all forms of independent journalism have been attacked as anti-national, unpatriotic or against the interests of the state. Both media owners and professional journalists of every stripe ought to be concerned by the trajectory of events. A free media is a public good that deserves the strongest protections.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2018
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