MEDIA: TARGETING THE JOURNALISTS

Published July 7, 2024
Journalists stage a protest in Jamrud, KP, on June 22 over the murder of senior journalist Khalil Jibran earlier in the month | Dawn
Journalists stage a protest in Jamrud, KP, on June 22 over the murder of senior journalist Khalil Jibran earlier in the month | Dawn

The gruesome killing of Khalil Jibran in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) Landi Kotal area last month was the seventh case of a journalist murdered in Pakistan this year. A former president of the local press club and a veteran journalist, Jibran’s vehicle was ambushed while he was returning home with friends after dinner. The gunmen dragged him out of his vehicle and unleashed a hail of bullets, killing him on the spot.

The month before was worse — one of the deadliest for Pakistani journalists — with four fatalities, evenly spread over Pakistan’s four provinces. May’s first murder took place on the third, which ironically is World Press Freedom Day. Siddique Mengal, another veteran journalist and the president of the Khuzdar Press Club, died after his vehicle was targeted with a ‘homemade magnet bomb’.

Less than a fortnight later, on May 15, Ashfaq Ahmed Sial was gunned down in Muzaffargarh in southern Punjab. On May 21, digital journalist Kamran Dawar was shot dead in a village in Miranshah, KP. On the same day, Nasrullah Gadani — who was also very active on social media — was shot multiple times in Ghotki’s Mirpur Mathelo area in northern Sindh. He would succumb to his injuries in Karachi three days later.

Before that, in March, another journalist Saghir Ahmed Lar was gunned down in Punjab’s Khanpur city. Like many others, he also had a significant social media presence. A few days earlier, a body mutilated with stab wounds and acid burns was found in Punjab’s Gujjar Khan, which was later identified as that of print journalist Tahira Nosheen Rana.

This is separate from the threats, attacks, abductions and other forms of intimidation faced by media practitioners in this country.

This has been the deadliest year for Pakistani media in a decade, with seven journalists murdered in the first six months. But with compromised investigations and poor conviction rates being the norm, including in the cases of journalists, the likelihood of the victims’ families receiving justice is slim…

In the cases of murder, each instance was followed by swift calls for justice from local and international press freedom entities and followed by protests of varying intensity.

The journalists in Khyber have been protesting non-stop to get justice for their colleague, Khalil Jibran. Similarly, protests are taking place in Sindh against the murder of Nasrullah Gadani.

The rest of the protests have seemingly petered out, which is not surprising for many, considering the high levels of impunity in the country. Pakistan dropped two places this year and now ranks 152 out of 180 countries in the 2024 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders.

According to Islamabad-based press freedom entity, the Freedom Network, 53 journalists were killed because of their work between 2012-2022. The report claims that only two of those cases ended in a conviction.

However, even in those cases, the convictions were later overturned, including in the 2013 murder of Karak journalist Ayub Khattak, who was murdered due to his reporting on drug-related activities.

ESTABLISHING MOTIVE

For press freedom entities, the biggest challenge in such cases is to establish whether the victim was killed because of their work. It becomes increasingly difficult in cases where the journalists are working in smaller towns — as is the case in most recent fatalities — due to a multitude of factors.

Unless working for one of the bigger media houses, journalists in smaller towns are not paid a salary, and most have a separate form of employment or business. Several journalists in small towns across Pakistan told Eos that they had paid either a one-time fee or continue to make an annual payment to their employing organisation in order to retain their ‘journalistic’ card.

In such an environment, it is unlikely for journalism to be an idealistic pursuit of truth. Instead, journalists often act as power brokers, resolving local disputes, such as issues over land or personal enmity, and pushing news stories with a specific agenda. Such murky transactions and mediations, where ethical and legal lines are blurred, also makes journalists a target.

This isn’t intended to suggest that the journalism being practised in smaller towns and villages is compromised or below par. The reports on bonded labour of daily Jang’s Zubair Ahmed Mujahid, who was murdered in Mirpurkhas in 2008, made international headlines and spurred the country’s top court to take action.

Hayatullah Khan, who was found dead in June 2006, six months after being abducted, reported from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border when it was considered the most dangerous place on Earth, with his work featuring in leading international publications.

More recently, Anwar Jan Khetran used social media to highlight the many alleged criminal acts of the local tribal lord, Abdul Rehman Khetran. Anwar Jan was shot dead in his home district of Barkhan in Balochistan in 2020.

Among the recent cases, the murder of Jan Muhammad Mahar, a prominent Sindhi language journalist in Sukkur who was shot dead in August last year, has resulted in massive protests from the journalist community.

While on the surface the matter seems to be of personal enmity — Mahar was mediating an issue over land involving his nephews and another party — there have been suggestions that the police are focusing their efforts on the individual who pulled the trigger and not the intellectual author of the murder.

INVESTIGATIVE SHORTCOMINGS

This seems to be a recurring theme in such murder cases, particularly when they take place in smaller cities and towns. It is rare for a crime scene to be preserved, with evidence collection often negligent and chain of custody compromised.

In its 2022 report, Crime and Punishment in Pakistan’s Journalism World, Freedom Network noted that police submitted the complete challan [charge-sheet] to the courts only in 59 percent of the 53 cases of journalist murders during 2012-2022. Of those, the prosecution found only half the cases fit for trial. The trial was completed for less than a quarter of the cases, it notes.

Eos identified similar problems in recent cases, including multiple versions of the first information report (FIR) in Mahar’s murder. In the Gadani case, the FIR wasn’t filed within 24 hours of the incident, as required by law.

These and other findings were corroborated in fact-finding missions, which the writer undertook as part of an investigative project, supported by Amsterdam-based press freedom organisation, the Free Press Unlimited.

In the Khetran case, the name of the prime suspect was only included following a court order, as investigators initially refused to include the influential tribal chief’s name, fearing reprisals. Even after the inclusion of his name and issuance of arrest warrants by the local trial court, the suspect was able to acquire bail, over a dozen times, from the provincial high court and never once appeared before the authorities to be questioned in connection with the murder.

Zakir Ali, a broadcast journalist for Abb Tak News in Larkana who used the alias Shan Dahar, was shot dead on the night of December 31, 2013, at a time when he was investigating illegal sales of pharmaceuticals meant for non-profit entities. His sister, who continues to fight for justice for her brother, tells Eos that Dahar’s laptop, with files deleted, was returned to them by the family of the very doctor that Dahar was investigating.

In almost all the cases, the families accuse the police of failing to identify leads or review the journalist’s work to identify potential threats. Even in cases where the families provided the police with potential leads, they were not investigated adequately.

Mujahid’s family said they had shared information about a threat made to the journalist by a high-ranking police officer, but he was never questioned in connection with the case. This also occurred in the murders of Ajay Lalwani, who was gunned down in Sukkur in March 2021, and Muhammad Zada Agra, who was shot dead in a village in Malakand in Pakistan’s north in November the same year.

In Lalwani’s case, the family nominated the town chairman and his brother. The police have made several arrests, including a suspect they say is the alleged killer. But Lalwani’s brothers insist that this was done to deflect attention from the main accused.

In Agra’s case, the police arrested two drug dealers, who they said were responsible for the murder. However, those Eos spoke to in the area insinuated that those in custody had only pulled the trigger, and the murder had been planned by someone else. Several of them cited an argument Zada had with the area’s deputy commissioner during a khuli kachehri [open court] a month before his murder, in which he accused the government official of having ties to narco-traffickers and organised crime.

In another case, that of Samaa journalist Amir Mateen in Karachi, police claimed they had shot dead one of the alleged killers in an ‘encounter’ in the Qambar-Shahdadkot area in northern Sindh.

These findings suggest a systemic pattern of slipshod investigation, with the intention either to ‘weaken’ the case or to put it in cold storage. This is separate from the investigative challenges, in terms of capacity, expertise and facilities, to test forensics and ballistics, or a comprehensive programme of witness protection.

 A protest in Hyderabad, Sindh, on May 26 against the killing of journalist Nasrullah Gadani earlier in the month | INP
A protest in Hyderabad, Sindh, on May 26 against the killing of journalist Nasrullah Gadani earlier in the month | INP

THE COST OF JUSTICE

Navigating Pakistan’s legal system is a daunting task for anyone, let alone the families of slain journalists, already grieving the loss of loved ones who were often their sole breadwinners.

These journalists — usually from the middle or lower-middle income groups — are often the family’s window to the world, especially in rural set-ups that are likely to be more conservative. The employer never becomes party to the case, and rarely bears the legal costs, which compounds the problems facing the family, particularly considering the lengthy judicial process.

Journalist collectives do lend support, but this is often not sustained and is limited to protests and visits to high-ranking officials. On the other hand, the accused or the suspects in the case are often individuals of considerable influence and resources, who can get the best legal minds.

One Karachi-based lawyer, representing Shan Dahar, withdrew from the case citing the distance to Larkana. In Mahar’s case, a journalist collective engaged the president of the local bar association, but the family, in conversation with Eos, seemed dissatisfied, and even expressed preference for legal help provided by a different journalistic body.

Such support, when offered, is limited to journalists belonging to traditional media or affiliated with local journalistic bodies. It doesn’t extend to individuals, such as Agra and Khetran, who are primarily known for their work on digital platforms.

The debate continues on the definition of journalists, and has intensified amid attacks on citizen journalists, including the murder of Nazim Jokhio in November 2021.

Around the same time, the federal government passed the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, 2021, as did the Sindh government, which extended the definition to media practitioners, “including cameraperson and photographers, technical supporting staff, drivers and interpreters, editors, translators, publishers, broadcasters, printers and distributors.”

This does not solve the problem for the new breed of digital journalists, particularly in small towns, who have a strong and loyal online readership and viewership. The situation becomes dire when their particular brand of journalism — sans editorial oversight — puts a target on their back.

Without the support and acknowledgement of the journalistic community, any hopes the victim’s family might have of getting justice are likely to evaporate.

In the Anwar Jan case, the family’s lawyer — already working on a pro bono basis — tells Eos that the one conviction so far in the case might be overturned, as he didn’t have the resources to go the provincial capital, Quetta, where the high court would hear the convict’s appeal.

Meanwhile, Anwar Jan’s family has been forced to reconsider its options, particularly after the prime suspect, Abdul Rehman Khetran, was successful in the recent elections. The most likely outcome now, it seems, is for the family to accept blood money under the country’s controversial Diyat laws, which allow the victim’s family to pardon the accused in return for financial compensation.

This happened in the case of Aziz Memon, whose body was found floating in an irrigation channel in Naushahro Feroze in February 2020, with marks on his neck suggesting he was garrotted. Despite that, the initial police report said he had died of “natural causes.” It led to a hue and cry, resulting in arrests and a guilty plea, and a conviction by the trial court.

But during this process, first Memon’s wife died and then his brother, who was the complainant in the case, Ilm Din Aleem, an office holder of the Mehrabpur Press Club, tells Eos. The heirs, with no more stomach to fight, settled for the compensation.

MOVING THE ENGINES OF JUSTICE

There is yet to be any significant development in any of the seven cases reported this year.

At least two of these cases, of Sial and Rana, are believed to be due to personal enmity, based on conversations Eos had with police and the victim’s colleagues.

This still leaves five other cases of journalists, who were likely targeted because of their work. A thorough investigation is needed, including a review of the journalists’ recent works and any threats that they might have received because of it.

In each case, there is ample information to suggest potential leads. Saghir Laar’s brother told police that his brother was constantly receiving death threats. Kamran Dawar’s digital reporting focused on militancy and was also critical of the armed forces, as was Khalil Jibran’s journalistic work. Gadani was excessive in his criticism of the local feudal lord.

Journalists and press freedom entities can, and should, create and sustain enough pressure to compel the police and prosecution to ensure that due process is followed and there are no unnecessary delays.

One solution is to have a collective or coalition of like-minded individuals, with the relevant expertise, who can shadow such investigations. The experts could be retired investigators, jurists, investigative journalists, and experts in forensics, ballistics and medico-legal processes.

They can either be provided access to the investigation, or the relevant case files, to assess them and identify the gaps and oversights.

There has been a similar effort recently, with the creation of the Sindh Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Other Media Professionals in 2022. However, this commission meets sporadically and it is yet to appoint a new head since the passing of its chairman in February this year.

The writer is a member of staff and part of a collective that investigates the murders of journalists. X: @hussainydada

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2024

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