By Sonya Rehman
At the same time that Pakistani media is experiencing a growth spurt in the digital arena, simply working as a journalist here places one in danger. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists deemed Pakistan the “deadliest nation” in the world for reporters. Reaching a similar conclusion last month, another press advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, described the country as being in a “permanent state of violence,” which is “paralyzing” the media. Most at risk are those journalists who offend crime syndicates or powerful government officials.
One case this year which made headlines involved the GEO TV correspondent, Wali Khan Babar, who was shot by unidentified gunmen in January. It was suspected that Babar was a victim of the ongoing sectarian violence in Karachi. Yet, some reports also stress the fact that Babar had covered a drug bust in a neighborhood against drug traffickers shortly before he was killed. Nothing concrete can be stated in this regard and Babar’s killers have yet to be found and put on trial.
Another victim of the pernicious violence was Umar Cheema, a reporter for The News International. In 2010, he was abducted in the capital, Islamabad, and tortured for several hours. Even though Cheema was released alive, his captors threatened him of a worse fate if he continued to criticize the government in his articles.
At risk from all sides
As the previous examples illustrate, there is no accountability for those who retaliate against journalists. The media finds itself caught between dual threats posed by the government and non-state actors.
Every Pakistani government, according to Masood Hasan, a reputable columnist for The News International, has “used the media to control opinion, further their stay and cover up their mistakes/corruption/inefficiency. This is the policy that remains well in force as we speak and will not change.”
But Zarrar Khuhro, an Editor at The Express Tribune, believes the “real danger” comes from “groups that use violence or the threat of violence to ensure that stories unfavorable to them do not run.”
“With a judicial system that is near collapse and a police force that is not renowned for its investigative skills,” Khuhro adds, “these groups know that they can murder, maim and threaten journalists with impunity.”
Certain topics off limits
Despite these real dangers, some insist that the state of journalism here is improving. Raza Rumi, a columnist and consulting editor for the weekly Pakistani newspaper, The Friday Times, believes that Pakistan has enjoyed “unprecedented” media freedom recently. The local media industry benefits from a large pool of empowered, privately owned electronic and print media houses – some of whom remain intrepid in their reportage. Rumi concedes, however, that the intimidation from certain sectors effectively shuts down debate on sensitive topics.
“Pakistan is a transitional democracy and the civilian institutions of the government are weak, threatened by a powerful sectarian establishment on one hand and violent non-state actors on the other,” Rumi says. “Therefore there are certain topics on which free debate is not present.”
Rumi cites a few examples: “Firstly, there is the Balouchistan issue where scores of missing persons (essentially Balouch separatists) have been picked up by security agencies. Also, the terrain is quite inaccessible for journalists to do objective and fair reporting and any critical report on Balouchistan is considered anti-State.”
Second, Rumi explains that reporting on militant groups – especially those nurtured in the past by the State – is another subject where the freedom of speech and reportage is highly limited.
“Then there is the issue of well-organized urban mafias with close links to political parties, where any critical reporting is construed as a threat to mafia interests and immediately silenced to violence,” states Rumi.
Against this backdrop of repression, social media and citizen journalism has begun to branch out into a popular, alternative news source in the country. For examples from my own reporting on AudienceScapes, see here and here.
With the proliferation of Pakistani citizen journalism portals that have begun to go live, it is safe to state that online journalism in Pakistan remains free from any kind of oppressive forces – so far.