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A chilling message

Published Jan 19, 2012 02:07am

THE Pakistani Taliban's claim that they killed Mohmand Agency newsman Mukarram Khan Atif, who worked for Voice of America and a private national television channel, adds a serious dimension to the issue of journalists' safety. Whereas media persons, especially in the northwest, have often received veiled threats from militants, this is the first time that an extremist group has openly claimed responsibility for the death of a journalist. With the Taliban threatening to kill more journalists, those reporting on the conflict have now become major targets to be pursued anywhere, even in places far from the conflict zone, as seen in the case of Mr Atif who was killed in Charsadda where he had moved for reasons of safety. The active targeting of newsmen by the Taliban will not only have repercussions for the safety of journalists reporting on militancy. It will also mean that large parts of the northwest could well become a news blackout zone, with serious consequences particularly in the context of abuses that may never come to light.

Journalists' watchdog organisations place Pakistan high on the 'impunity index', i.e. the country is considered a place where people are not just killed but where the killers arelikely to get away with their deed as well. The state has consistently refrained from carrying out credible investigations or prosecutions into journalists' deaths. In doing so, it has emboldened those that seek to stifle the flow of information. This is not the only concern. The state's tolerance of extremist groups and hard-line religious rhetoric is also detrimental to the war against militancy. As the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said after Sunday's sectarian strike on a Chehlum procession in Khanpur, 'sectarian violence continues in Pakistan because the cause is usuaHyleftunaddressed.

And it is clear that this happens because nearly all institutions of the state have a soft corner for religious extremism'. The same warning applies to terrorism: unless the state sheds its soft spot for religlously motivated extremism this too will grow into an entrenched, even tolerated malaise.

A warning bell must also be sounded about the risks of glorifying the extremists' cause in any way by other actors, including sections of the media. Objectivity and balance must be maintained at all times; brutality and barbarism must be shown for what they are.

Without this effort, extremist groups will continue to target all those who are vocal about their activities.