Journalism is not a crime. What’s criminal is the culture of impunity for journalists’ killers in Pakistan

In the last three decades, at least 97 journalists have been killed in Pakistan. In 98pc of the cases, the murderers have enjoyed complete impunity.
Published November 2, 2023

On August 13, Jan Muhammad Mahar was shot dead soon after leaving his office at the Kawish Television Network (KTN) in Sukkur where he was the bureau chief. Less than a week earlier, another journalist, Ghulam Asghar Khand, was shot at least nine times while on his way home in Khairpur.

Both murders sparked vociferous protests in their respective areas, besides receiving prominent coverage in the mainstream media. In Mahar’s case, two joint investigation teams were also formed to investigate the brazen killing.

Within a few hours, however, investigators ruled in both cases that the murders were carried out over personal enmity and had nothing to do with journalism. Before long, the protests too petered out and the two joint investigation teams (JIT) that were formed over Mahar’s murder failed to even convene.

One would think there was no need as police had Khand’s murderer in custody while Mahar’s murderer was said to have escaped to the kutcha (riverine wetlands) areas. A police party that went in his pursuit was repelled with rocket launchers, according to one member of the team. His assessment: the perpetrator had the backing of someone powerful with access to heavy weaponry.

However, both investigations suffer from a surfeit of investigative shortcomings. The man convicted for Khand’s murder said that his father was murdered 40 years ago. One fine day, he decided to murder Khand to avenge his father — local journalists are adamant neither Khand nor anyone in his extended family had any connection to the earlier crime.

In Mahar’s case, the story was even more incredulous. He was said to have been murdered over a land dispute between his nephews and a third party, but the latter chose to target Mahar.

A closer look at the case provides more questions than answers and show urgency on the part of the police to wrap up the investigation at the earliest.

Those close to the journalists in both instances say there is more than meets the eye — both journalists had received threats over their reporting with suggestions that the intellectual authors of the murder were different from those who pulled the trigger in each case.

Who is behind the murders?

According to one senior journalist, media professionals, particularly in small towns, are sometimes targeted because of the prestige and influence that comes with the profession. Other times, they are targeted simply because of their work.

In the cases of Mahar and Khand, the majority of local journalists and even police officials are convinced that someone wanted them dead and hired hitmen to do the deed. In other cases, the motive is much clearer, but the investigation gets murky.

This is a pattern that has been oft-repeated in Pakistan. It seems to be the case in the high-profile murder of journalist Arshad Sharif last year, even though it took place in Kenya. Then there was investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad, whose body was found a day after his disappearance from Islamabad in May 2011. There has been little to no headway into either of the cases.

The case of Zubair Mujahid, who was murdered 16 years ago in Mirpurkhas in drastically different circumstances, ended in a similar manner but because of vastly different reasons. The protests that erupted over his murder quickly turned into a whimper, the police mishandled the evidence and conducted a mock investigation — they never had a suspect or a person of interest, and didn’t investigate the threats made against him.

A two-year investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Free Press Unlimited (FPU) into Mujahid’s case revealed that Mujahid’s reporting focused on police and he had been threatened by a police officer as well. This compromised the investigation as the police were among the suspects.

Why are the perpetrators never caught?

Such cases repeat year after year. Even though fewer in number as compared to the time when Pakistan was among the frontline states in the war on terrorism, the rate of impunity in such cases remains extremely high.

For the last 16 years, Pakistan has had the ignominy of being placed on the CPJ’s Global Impunity Index. It ranks countries by the number of cases of murdered journalists and the progress — or lack thereof — in their prosecution. This year, 12 countries were included in this list with Pakistan ranked 11th.

The index examines journalists’ murders that occurred over the last decade — from September 1, 2013, to August 31, 2023 — for which no convictions were obtained. Only countries with five or more unsolved cases are included on the index. Somalia, Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines and India have also been included in this list for the last 16 years like Pakistan. Afghanistan has been on the list for 15 consecutive years and Brazil for 14.

According to the index, the motives behind the murder of eight journalists in Pakistan were not ascertained and none of the accused were punished in these incidents. As per CPJ, the list includes only those cases of murder in which the killers enjoy full legal impunity.

“As journalist murders continue to go unpunished in nearly 80 per cent of cases globally, in both democracies and authoritarian countries, the message is clear: journalists are fair game,” said CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg. “Murder is the ultimate form of censorship. Swift, transparent, independent local investigations are critical, and political will can change the course of justice to stem the pervasive impunity in cases of journalists killed for their work.”

Over the last 30 years, at least 97 journalists have been killed in Pakistan for carrying out their journalistic duties and in only two cases have the killers been partially convicted. In 98pc of the cases, the murderers have enjoyed complete impunity. At least 11 journalists have been killed in the last two years alone, according to Freedom Network — a Pakistan-based media and civil liberties organisation.

Where do we go from here?

In Arshad Sharif’s case, the government-constituted fact-finding team that went to Kenya to investigate his murder clearly indicated that the prominent journalist was killed through a well-thought-out plan. The team stressed that the killers should be identified and the mastermind of the murder be brought to justice. In this regard, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has also taken notice, but there has yet to be any substantial development in this regard.

While Sharif’s case is still an outlier, the inability of journalists’ unions and rights bodies to sustain pressure means that investigations become lax once public scrutiny tapers off. In most cases, the victim’s family cannot afford proper legal representation. The police are equally culpable, with glaring omissions in first information reports (FIR) and the interim charge-sheets submitted in courts.

The senior officer in the Mahar investigation acknowledged that the police committed grave mistakes in the FIR and the initial investigation, which was likely to be utilised by the murderer and the influential landlords behind him. He added that he was convinced Mahar was murdered because of his association with journalism.

This problem seems to be prevalent particularly in Sindh. According to Freedom Network, 53 journalists were killed in Pakistan between 2012 to 2022. The highest incidence of these murders, 16 or roughly 30 per cent, occurred in Sindh. They include Shan Dahar in Larkana, Aziz Memon in Naushahro Feroze and Ajay Lalwani in Sukkur. In each case, police investigations have failed to make any headway into apprehending the perpetrators.

All of these journalists, mostly from low- and middle-income households, were associated with mainstream news channels or newspapers. In each instance, the police investigation first found the motive to be personal enmity or an accident. In instances where journalists were able to identify loopholes in the investigation or provide credible evidence of threats, the police would reorient its investigation. However, as soon as pressure was let up, the case ended up in cold storage.

It is to remedy this situation that a few like-minded journalists and jurists have come together to constitute the ‘Pakistan Task Force on Journalist Murders’, which can critically monitor the investigative and prosecution process while maintaining pressure on the authorities by keeping the issue in the public eye.

The task force would ensure that the rights of journalists are safeguarded as part of the 2012 Action Plan by the United Nations for the safety of journalists, while murder investigations follow the Minnesota Protocol that lays out the investigative steps in the case of an unlawful killing.

In doing so, it hopes to be able to bring justice to the victims’ families and end the culture of impunity for crimes against journalists in Pakistan.