“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art except the armed forces — and, in Sri Lanka, journalism,” wrote Lasantha Wickrematunge, the slain editor of Sunday Leader. The same holds true for journalists in Pakistan.
It has always been between the rock and the hard place for journalists in Pakistan. But attacks have reached new heights in recent times. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992. Of those, 28 have been murdered in the last three years. Some journalists are lucky enough to survive like TV anchors Hamid Mir and Raza Rumi. While Rumi escaped unscathed, Mir took six bullets and now convalescing in a Karachi hospital.
Lasantha had anticipated attacks on his life and had written the editorial, I quoted earlier, three days before he was killed. Mir also knew his life was in danger and had given the names of his possible attackers to friends and colleagues. His organisation — Geo TV — came out with an unprecedented allegation that the most powerful State institution — the State within the State — the country’s spy agency ISI was behind the murder attempt.
Mir’s sin was that he talked about the murky role of the ISI in the cases of disappearances of political activists in the restive province of Balochistan and Rumi drew ire from the fundamentalist groups by criticising them in his show.
Investigative journalist Saleem Shehzad wrote about the links between the ISI and various terror outfits, including al Qaeda. For almost a year he had told several people of the threats he had been receiving from the ISI. He was abducted in May 2011 and appeared as a ‘dead body’ in a roadside canal the next day.
So there is this unwritten code: Never touch the ISI or else you’re in trouble. The usual pattern is, people disappear and sometimes their mutilated bodies appear after a few days. A few lucky ones come out tortured. One of them, who came out after ‘lightly tortured’ was my colleague in the BBC Urdu. He did not even embarrass the ISI like the way Saleem did, but he reported regularly on the Pakistani Taliban. We could not put the ordeals of his abduction and torture on air, because he was told to keep his mouth shut or else ‘bad things’ would happen to his family.
But ISI is not the only challenge for journalism in Pakistan. There are different terror groups. The most liberal Pakistani news organisation, the Express Tribune group, has recently faced the wrath of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Three of its journalists have been killed this year and its office bombed before that. Putting their safety as the priority, the group’s editor Kamal Siddiqi instructed his staff to write ‘nothing against any militant organisation and its allies like the Jamaat-e-Islami, religious parties and the Tehreek-e-Insaf.’ He said he had no other option but to impose self-censorship to protect his journalists who are on the firing line.
Finally, there is the enemy within — a vast section of Right-wing ultra-conservative, mainly Urdu language, media outlets that spew venom against any kind of modern, rational and critical thoughts. In a recent article in Guernica, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, Ali Dayan Hasan, has described these critical open-minded voices as the ‘wrong kind of Pakistani’ and explained how the virtues they exude have made them enemies of the State, the fundamentalists as well as the a large number of fellow practitioners.
So no wonder when the military establishment wants to close down Geo TV for accusing the ISI for the attack on Mir, it gets support from the local media.
Witnessing this depressing state of affairs, one is tempted to ask, ‘So is this the death of independent journalism in Pakistan?’ Let’s hope not, as Lasantha wrote in his editorial, “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts.”
Nazes Afroz is former executive editor for South and Central Asia of the BBC World Service
The views expressed by the author are personal