ISLAMABAD: Caught between militants’ threats and government’s serious clampdown on freedom of expression, journalists embraced extremely hard times in Pakistan—a country where peace largely returns after around a decade’s long war against terrorism.
My colleague, Ahmad Noorani, is one of 271 working journalists who survived a murder attempt last week since 1997 while more than 127 Pakistani journalists have been killed in line of duty by the unknown attackers during this period. Unfortunately, only some two dozen cases are being pleaded in different courts for years in Pakistan which ranks at 139 out of 180 countries. If it is not enough then more than 46 Pakistani journalists left the country and now seeking asylums in different parts of the world. Reasons are multiples. Today is Mr Noorani. Who would be the next one tomorrow? Think.
Journalists stopped reporting in Balochistan after militant groups attacked many journalists; some of them left their homes, and a media house in different parts of province, perhaps it has become most dangerous place for working journalists after the tribal areas. On day of ‘The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’—a United Nations-recognized event—observed annually on November 02—Pakistani journalists have yet to know who killed Wali Khan Babar, Saleem Shehzad, Musa Khankhail and who attacked Hamid Mir, Umar Cheema, Raza Rumi, Matiullah Jan, Azaz Syed and this list goes on. Such attacks still remain a mystery.
The data, this scribe collected so far from different sources, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders in particular, more than 1, 610 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992.
Syria topped the list with around 235 journalists killed; Iraq was second with around 211, following Pakistan with 127.
Working journalists also have been targeted by the militant groups in Balochistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other extremists groups since 2002. Baloch militant groups and TTP have also been publicly taken responsibility for the deaths of several journalists. Some colleagues wanted to write/speak on some sensitive issues—like missing persons, extra judicial killings by law enforcement agencies and recovery of bullet-ridden bodies from Balochistan—but they could not write/speak due to certain limits.
“It is our red-line—either we are being censored or experience the self censorship,” a colleague observed. “We are reporting from Dragon’s mouth,” another colleague observed. Even the government at some extent came hard over journalists who harshly criticized its policies. Arshad Sharif is one such instance after government challenged one of his stories in the court. I personally know more than two dozen journalists working in Balochistan and tribal areas who have either left the country or profession because they did not want to become minced meat in fight of many institutions. We’ve seen many commissions and committees were formed by the government to probe attacks on journalists, even the country’s top court took up this issue, but unfortunately outcome remained “Zero”.
One can understand well that Pakistan went through a difficult time after 9/11 and perhaps this was the reason media houses unanimously adopted a resolution of not glorifying activities of banned outfits following the National Action Plan announced after gruesome attack of Taliban on Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014. But it does mean that a clampdown should be carried on ‘freedom of expression’ in the country.
The government, though Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal pledged to stand by working journalists, should expose elements attacked Mr Noorani by taking this issue as a test case. Some serious questions are also being asked by the critics and the state must answer them. These are: Why did state fail to protect journalists? Did media owners chalk out any framework for safety of their employees? Is it somehow an easy task to bring all media houses on a single platform to resolve issues when media have been highly polarized in Pakistan? Would federal government go for fresh legislation to come hard on such elements posing serious threats to working journalists?
To find answers of all these questions I’ve spoken to many officials work with various government institutions and with corporate sectors. But I found no obvious answers of this dilemma. Opinion is, however, divided on this issue in the country. Winding up this debate on “how to end impunity for violence against working journos”, I’ll urge the government again to take up Mr Noorani’s case seriously—now or never basis—making it a test case for ensuring freedom of press in the country.
With thorough investigation into this latest incident, government must expose the rogue elements who have been trying to silence critics through such unlawful means. Through such coward acts, as history told us, no one can kill the voice who gives voice to the voiceless people. Mr Noorani is one of such true voices. Community stands by him and others as unity is only survival for us journalists.
Many also believed that media houses would also introduce self accountability mechanism to clean their own houses accordingly.