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Updated: June 3, 2013 11:03 IST

Dangers of telling a story

Prashant Jha
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CPJ report that 42 journalists were killed in the past decade.
AP CPJ report that 42 journalists were killed in the past decade.

Two years after journalist Saleem Shahzad’s killing, Pakistani media personnel continue to face grave danger in the course of their work, in an environment of shocking impunity

In January 2011, Wali Khan Babbar, a correspondent for Geo TV in Karachi, was shot dead on his way back home after covering a day of gang-violence. Babbar was one of the few journalists of Pashtun background, in a province which had seen the increasing presence of Pashtuns. The city’s principal political force known for its use of strong-arm methods, Muttahida Quami Movement, which claimed to speak for Muhajirs, had not taken too kindly to the demographic change. MQM saw Babbar’s reports as hostile.

Babbar’s killing triggered hopes that the judiciary may act to provide justice. But the effort ‘to thwart justice’ was as strong. Five individuals linked to the case – a police informant, two police constables including one who had been at the site, the brother of an investigating officer and an eyewitness – were killed. A journalist reporting on the case was fired from his job. And the home minister of Sindh province said he was being forced out of his job due to MQM pressure since they wanted investigations to be halted.

It did not end there. Two public prosecutors had strongly taken up the case of an extra-judicial execution of an unarmed civilian by a Pakistan security force, the Rangers, and received threats by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The same prosecutors then took up Babbar’s case; the warnings this time came from MQM loyalists, with complicity of the state. Eventually, they were removed from their position, and shifted to US.

In a well-researched report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has investigated the security – or the lack of it – for journalists in Pakistan. ‘Roots of Impunity – Pakistan’s Endangered Press, And the Perilous Web of Militancy, Security and Politics’, written by journalist Elizabeth Rubin, looks at the complex ways in which power is exercised to quell press freedom.

Babbar’s killing is used as a case-study to expose the different elements which have led to the larger crisis for the media. Journalists work in a polarized environment, where contending forces are willing, and have the capacity to use various means – manipulation, intimidation, coercion, abductions, inducement, and killing – to get someone to toe their line. Journalists face pressures from political parties, militant groups, military and intelligence services. Civil society pushes for justice, but is hard-pressed when the state itself lacks the commitment to democratic principles. The judicial system is compromised, under-resourced, or threatened, not to take the case to its logical conclusion.

The results are there to see. CPJ reports 42 journalists have been killed in the past decade. International Federation of Journalists paints an even more disturbing picture. Between 2000 and 2006, 42 journalists were killed and in the next six years, another 66 journalists have died.

This is also the period when the Pakistani media has grown enormously. There are 90 television cable stations today; there are another 100 radio stations. The press is more free and critical than ever before. But it is precisely this openness which seems to have led to growing dangers. Security establishment and militant groups have to face uncomfortable questions for the first time; their deeds are out in the public; and they seek to stifle this.

CPJ also examines, in some detail, the killing of Mukarram Khan Aatif, a reporter for the Pashto language service of the Voice of America, in January 2012. The Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed responsibility and accused him of failing to carry their version in his stories, highlighting that reporters working for American and western media outlets are in greater danger. Any insensitivity in handling their reports by editors in distant capitals can become a matter of life and death for those on the ground.

In her investigations, Rubin gathered there was a widespread perception that elements of the ‘establishment’ were unhappy with Aatif’s reports, including a possible dispatch where he mentioned that a Taliban hideout was near an army base. About regions like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Safdar Dawar of the Tribal Union of Journalists, quoted in the report, says, “It has military, militancy and media – and sometimes the first two get against the third.”

It is exactly two years since the killing of Saleem Shahzad, the writer who had spoken of al-Qaeda infiltration in Pakistan’s military. There has been no conviction in a single killing of a journalist yet. And as the CPJ report states, journalists will continue to be unsafe till Pakistan is ‘at war with itself’ and makes fundamental decisions about the kind of state and society it wants to be.

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