Target on their backs

Published May 3, 2021
Illustration by Reem Khurshid
Illustration by Reem Khurshid

FILTHY curses, and the gleam of a pistol. That is about all the barber says he knows of the attack on Ajay Lalwani as the journalist sat getting a shave from him on the evening of March 17 in Saleh Pat, Sukkur district. The street outside was in darkness because of a power cut; a couple of emergency bulbs provided the only light inside. “I heard someone order me to move to the back of my shop,” recalls Khalil Ahmed the barber. Then came the gunshots. Two bullet holes can be seen in the barber’s chair where Ajay sat. Witnesses saw two men flee from the scene on a motorbike. Three more individuals waiting in a car outside sped away while firing in the air. “The thana is within walking distance, but the cops took half an hour to arrive,” says a source within the police.

Bleeding profusely, Ajay — a reporter for Royal News television and daily Puchhano — was rushed to hospital but died the next day. The 27-year-old’s untimely demise removed from the scene a ‘troublesome’ journalist who raised difficult questions with local authorities.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, and the experiences of journalists in upper Sindh alone illustrate the price that media practitioners in Pakistan can expect to pay if they dare speak truth to power. Threats, beatings, trumped up criminal charges, even murder.

The International Federation of Journalists has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous place for the practice of journalism, with 138 media persons here having lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020. In 2021 alone, three journalists — including Ajay — have been murdered and one, Absar Alam, injured in an attempted assassination. Media professionals all across the country are targeted with impunity by militants, political actors, and security agencies.

As per Freedom Network Pakistan’s latest report on press freedom, at least 148 instances of attacks and violations against journalists and media practitioners occurred between May 3, 2020 and April 20, 2021 across the country. Among them were six murders and seven attempted assassinations. After Islamabad, Sindh proved the most dangerous part of the country for media persons, with 26 per cent of the overall cases.

“Journalism has been taken hostage here,” says Imdad Phulpoto, Sukkur dis­trict bureau chief for Abb Takk News. He is among the few journalists willing to be quoted by name for this story. “We leave home not knowing whether we’ll see our families again.”

In upper Sindh, an oppressive feudal system brooks no dissent, and the police, far from enforcing the law, act as the waderas’ personal force.

Honest reporting in Pakistan draws the ire of powerful quarters and some journalists pay the ultimate price

Mr Phulpoto experienced this first-hand four years ago when he was working with Samaa TV. Early morning on Jan 5, 2017, a police contingent raided his home and took him to a thana. There they beat him black and blue, later transporting him to a feudal’s autaq, where he was again thrashed mercilessly. “They threatened to kill me in a fake encounter along with two dacoits they said were in their custody,” recalls the journalist. “The only thing that saved me was that, as I found out later, Samaa was constantly running reports about my abduction.”

He has no doubt why he was subjected to this ordeal. “I had filed several reports at that time about [a senior PPP leader] having built his house on land reserved for a school, and also reported that his lands in Saleh Pat were being irrigated by tube wells running on government electricity.” Threats had been hurled at him several times, he says, for pursuing these stories.

At least 25 FIRs on fake grounds have been filed against various journalists in Sukkur over the past 18 months alone. The charges include serious offences such as waging war against Pakistan, kidnapping for ransom, dacoity, rioting and rape; some charges have clauses under the Anti Terrorism Act appended to them.

A senior police official concedes that this is indeed the case, and sometimes violence is committed. In his view, “Journalists tend to become very personal in their interactions with powerful people here, and cross the lines of journalistic ethics. Sometimes feudal elements take offence and retaliate.”

According to the Freedom Network Pakistan’s earlier cited report, the top three categories of violations against journalists are: embroiling them in legal cases, verbal threats of murder or other dire consequences, and their arrest/detention by law enforcement agencies.

Unlike other parts of the country where news desks at television channels receive calls from ‘unknown numbers’, intelligence agencies do not often interact with journalists to that extent in upper Sindh. Most media persons anyway desist from reporting ‘sensitive’ news. “There is an ongoing protest for missing persons outside the Larkana press club,” says a reporter. “It never finds a mention anywhere.” On the other hand, when intelligence personnel announce that certain members of Sindhi separatist groups have renounced violence — or colloquially speaking, become “new Musalmans” — they expect coverage, and get it.

At least 148 instances of attacks and violations against journalists occurred between May 3, 2020 and April 20, 2021 across the country. Among them were six murders and seven attempted assassinations.

The PPP’s top bosses are known to have a stake in several TV channels, which adds to the pressure. In September 2019, one such channel ran the video of a young dog bite victim in Shikarpur dying in his mother’s arms for lack of the rabies vaccine. The clip went viral and brought down the wrath of the Sindh government on the reporter. His colleague told Dawn, “The channel was ordered not to run any more reports about dog bite incidents, and they’ve had to comply.”

More recently, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the government was distributing bars of soap in Larkana district as part of a campaign to encourage handwashing. When a television channel exposed the fact that the soap was past its expiry date, a top PPP leader demanded that the owners fire the reporter.

Living dangerously is thus an occupational hazard for journalists who challenge the status quo. That said, there are systemic problems within Pakistani media itself that those who care about the profession and its relevance for democracy must urgently address. Consider, for example, that the all-powerful wadera-politicians have another proxy — the so-called ‘sahafi-wadera’. “He’s a beneficiary of these political waderas, whose role is to control the local journalists so they don’t write anything against them,” says a Sukkur-based reporter. “In return, he gets lakhs of rupees from development funds which he can blow on whatever he pleases.”

Samaa TV bureau chief Sahil Jogi, who describes Sukkur district as being like Burma for journalists, contends that of the 140 members of the Sukkur Press Club, around 60 are not really journalists. “And 90pc of those who are genuine are controlled.”

It was thus perhaps unsurprising that there were no reports about Ajay Lalwani’s murder in the local papers for the first two days. While in hospital, Ajay had named two former local administration officials, Inayat Shah and Ahsan Shah, also from the PPP, as being behind the attack on him. No posting, no appointment in the area can happen without the nod of those at the top of its feudal system.

Ajay had been receiving threats for several months, and was nominated in FIRs on allegedly false charges of robbery and terrorism. “He didn’t even know how to fire a weapon,” says his father Dilip Kumar. “But a few months ago, he had asked Ahsan and Inayat at a press conference where the local administration had spent the billions of rupees in development funds given to it. He questioned why invoices were being submitted to the government for electricity in public parks when kundas [illegal electricity connections] were being used to obtain power for lighting.”

Early morning on Jan 5, 2017, a police contingent raided his home and took him to a thana. There they beat him black and blue, later transporting him to a feudal’s autaq, where he was again thrashed mercilessly. “They threatened to kill me in a fake encounter along with two dacoits they said were in their custody,” recalls the journalist.

He had also confronted senior police officials on the issue of fake encounters after the murder of university student Irfan Jatoi in one such incident. Immediately after the attack on Ajay, the SHO concerned was removed and another appointed in his place. “That’s how you spoil a case,” says a reporter. “Having one SHO at the time of the murder and another during investigation muddies the waters and ensures that responsibility gets divided.”

Although a man named Raza Shah has ostensibly confessed to the crime and spilled the beans on several others, including the man who allegedly carried out the recce and the two hitmen, a police official candidly tells Dawn: “The cops won’t dig deeper. The DC, RPO are all appointed with the nod of [Sukkur’s politician-wadera]. Who’s going to risk their posting to tell the truth?”

The IG Sindh recently appointed a top police official from another district — SSP Kashmore, Amjad Shaikh — to head the investigation. SSP Shaikh informs Dawn that the names of both individuals named by Ajay, as well as that of the SHO Saleh Pat at the time have now been included as ‘proposed accused’ in the FIR. According to him, the three men, unlike the other suspects, have not been arrested because “the police have not got substantial evidence that links them with the crime.” He adds however: “If they are guilty, they will be prosecuted.”

A New Year’s night murder

It was a little past midnight on Jan 1, 2014. In the town of Badah, Larkana district, journalist Shan Dahar was standing outside a small medical store located in a narrow lane. He had been working on an investigative story about free medicines supplied by an NGO for poor patients being illegally sold to local pharmacies. Suddenly a gunshot rang out. “Shan was leaning across the counter talking to me when he let out a cry and collapsed on the ground,” recalls the shopkeeper, Zulfikar Khokar. A bullet had struck him in his upper back.

By the time the medical superintendent got to the scene and Shan was transferred to Chandka Hospital in Larkana, the journalist had lost a considerable amount of blood. That, coupled with a gross lack of medical attention, cost Shan his life. Before he breathed his last, some nine to ten hours later, he alleged that the influential Zehri family was behind the attack. He had had several confrontations with members of the family, including over a documentary he had made about precious seals stolen from Moenjodaro museum, a crime in which he had implicated some individuals from the Zehri tribe.

As a senior journalist with 27 years’ experience, Shan’s death caused considerable agitation among media professionals and rallies were held across Sindh to demand the arrest of his killers. However, the investigation process became suspect almost straightaway. As in Ajay Lalwani’s recent murder, the sitting SHO at the time was transferred and two others were appointed to the post in quick succession by SSP Khalid Mustafa Korai. According to Shan’s colleagues, he had had several run-ins with the cop, and at a recent press conference had asked him how he could afford his lavish lifestyle on a policeman’s salary. A complaint lodged by the journalist at the thana about threats against him a few days before his death mysteriously vanished.

After first claiming that the bullet that had hit Shan was fired from 20 feet, the police revised that estimate to 40 ft and then to 250ft describing it as an accidental death due to aerial firing by revelers on New Year’s eve. No one else in Badah died in aerial firing that night; indeed, say local journalists, no death from aerial firing has ever been recorded in the area. “And the temperature was sub-zero on the night between Dec 31 and Jan 1,” says Fouzia Dahar, Shan’s sister. “Cold weather slows down a bullet. The police also claimed the bullet first hit the wall above Shan’s head, deflected and then struck him. It couldn’t have retained enough force to do that and puncture his lung.”

Then there was the lone eyewitness to the crime itself, Munna Qadir Kandhro, the watchman at the hospital across from the medical store, who, it is believed, told some neighbours the next day about what he had seen. He was even picked up by the police but then released on bail. “He and his family disappeared from Badah and were never seen there again,” insists Ms Dahar. “Why didn’t the police track him down?” The bloodstained jacket her brother was wearing that night is still in her possession; the police, she says, didn’t even take it for forensic examination.

No one has been prosecuted for Shan’s death despite his family’s efforts. Promising leads were not followed up, such as the fact that two Zehri brothers, Amir and Irfan, were earlier seen by several witnesses that night close to site of the shooting. A re-investigation, led by the same DIG as the one who had conducted the first one, unsurprisingly arrived at the same conclusion. The Zehri brothers still live in the same town, despite a court order that they be arrested when found.

Within walking distance of where Shan was shot is a two-room press club. A group of journalists gathered there spoke to Dawn. “We don’t know for sure whether Shan was murdered — the Zehri elders even came to the family and said they were ready to pay compensation if the investigation found the two men guilty — but the inquiry was certainly not satisfactory,” said one of them. He then added: “We can expect anything from the police. The drug trade, the gambling dens here, it all happens with their patronage.”

Physical violence is not the only way to make journalists toe the line. Zaib Ali, press club president and local bureau chief of Sindh TV reveals that when he reported on the sale of illicit liquor in Badah, his brother was arrested that night for gambling. Ali Raza of Awami Forum newspaper was picked up by police some years ago after he reported on forests being cut down, and threatened with being disposed of in a staged encounter.

Another coercive ploy is administrative in nature. Reporting on corruption can result in family members with government jobs being transferred far away. One TV reporter said his wife was a schoolteacher in Sukkur, and because the local authorities were displeased with him, she was transferred to Badin, nearly 350km away.

The rot within

There is, however, another relevant issue here — the rot within the media landscape itself. It is well known that the press in Pakistan is going through a financial crisis. Massive retrenchments have taken place and salaries slashed. That said, most district correspondents have never been paid a salary, especially in the Sindhi press with the exception of one particular media house. Such a system cannot but encourage corruption in the form of news coverage for sale, or the lack of coverage, as the case may be.

Elections are a particularly lucrative time for the sale of ‘journalistic services’. “Candidates will pay anything between Rs200,000 to Rs2m for media exposure,” says a reporter. Earlier, the deal was between the reporter and the aspiring candidate. Now, with the rise in the influence of media outlet owners, the bureau chief gets the “package”. One reporter ruefully describes the bureau chief as “SSP and feudal combined”.

The ‘desk in-charge’, who functions as the gatekeeper for the news, has his own demands. “We have to transfer money from our Easypaisa account balance if we want our reports to air. It can be anything from Rs50 and Rs500, depending on the story,” reveals a journalist in Badah.

The lack of unity among journalists makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. Badah for example, a town of less than 100,000 people, has no less than four press clubs, indicating a fragmented journalist community allied with different power centres. Other small towns in the province are no different.

Certainly, journalistic integrity can still be found, but it is a luxury that only salaried correspondents, those with family wherewithal or a second job which brings in an income, can afford.

It was not always this way. Sindhi media was in fact well known for its progressive leanings. “After the Soviet Union’s breakup in the late ‘80s, all the leftists in the province went into journalism,” says Mashooq Odhano, KTN bureau chief in Larkana. “Activists like us had studied the world before we came to journalism. We knew what democracy and human rights were.”

The feudals were extremely powerful then as well, but the truth carried a certain weight. It was the mushrooming of electronic media, believes the seasoned journalist, that sparked a decline, with vacancies far outstripping the supply of competent individuals who wanted to do journalism for the right reasons. As Mr Odhano says, “There used to be a romance about journalism. That is now gone.”

Nevertheless, the first step towards improving the media environment is to provide a secure environment for journalists. It has been some time that the human rights ministry drafted the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill. A fairly comprehensive piece of proposed legislation, it addresses the critical issue of impunity by setting up a seven-member commission with wide-ranging powers of investigation and redressal. Given the dire circumstances in which the media works, such legislation is urgently needed.

Pictures can be accessed on dawn.com

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2021

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