Over the last decade media in Pakistan have experienced a remarkable growth and transformation in its role. Though there have been serious reversals in recent years, Pakistan continues to enjoy vibrant, independent and fairly free media. The advent of private TV channels since 2002 revolutionized Pakistan’s media environment. Almost one hundred private television channels are currently broadcasting, reaching a wide section of the society.
Private television channels have opened a new discourse in the society which for many years was monopolistic and one sided. Open and candid discussions on issues ranging from domestic politics to social and cultural matters have helped strengthen civil society and democratic process in the country. However, there are also certain areas where the media find their freedom heavily curtailed, most notably in coverage of security issues and religion. Because of their popularity, television channels have come under increased pressure from state, non-state and political groups.
Safety and security of media practitioners is one area where the situation has deteriorated markedly for media organisations and professionals. Pakistan is amongst the most dangerous countries of the world for journalists and it has become difficult for media personnel to work in a secure atmosphere. Pakistan has been a “frontline state” for almost four decades which has polarized society and destroyed people’s sense of security. Because of the Afghanistan war, the areas bordering Afghanistan; including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and FATA, are the most dangerous areas for journalists.
Pakistani journalists are not only targeted by militants but also by political, religious, ethnic and other pressure groups as well as the law enforcement agencies. Incidents of threats, attacks and killings of journalists in Pakistan are the clear evidence of how critical the situation is due to thriving culture of impunity. For every journalist who has been deliberately targeted and murdered, there are many others who have been injured, threatened and coerced into silence. Attackers and murderers of journalists enjoy impunity, which undermines the freedom of expression in the country.
In Pakistan, journalists are killed, unjustly detained, abducted, beaten and threatened by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, militants, tribal and feudal lords, as well as by some political parties that claim to promote democracy and the rule of law. Adding to the gravity of the situation is the fact that the perpetrators of violence against journalists and media workers enjoy almost absolute impunity from prosecution in Pakistan. The threat to journalists has grown dramatically in the past decade since the problem of militancy has grown. The Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups have posed an ever greater threat to journalists — and to all citizens – since 2002 when, in the wake of 9/11, the Pakistani government began to try to counter their rising influence.
Threats and violence have forced many journalists to move from these danger zones and to leave the profession or to resort to self-censorship, particularly in conflict areas. As a consequence, news reports from conflict areas are based on press releases, not on observations by independent journalists. Thus, new reports that are published or broadcast lack credibility and do not inform the public in an objective manner. For democratic development, Pakistan must have credible, professional and independent media.
According to research by PPF, since 2001, 71 journalists and media workers have lost their lives while pursuing their duties. Of these 47 have been deliberately targeted and murdered for practicing their profession, while others were killed while covering dangerous assignments. In only two cases have the murderers been convicted by the courts.
International press freedom and media safety watchdogs agree that Pakistan has become one of the deadliest countries for journalists. Pakistan ranks in the top 10 of the Impunity Index compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), of those countries that do not investigate and prosecute murders of journalists.
This reluctance to hold those who use violence against media professionals continues despite the damage to Pakistan’s reputation as an emerging democratic country. Even in high profile cases such as that of murderous attack on Hamid Mir in 2014, and the murders of Saleem Shahzad in 2011 and Hayatullah Khan in 2006. In all three cases high profile commissions were set up but the result has been nil.
Hamid Mir of Geo Television received six bullet wounds when he was attacked in Karachi in April 2014 receiving six bullets. The government set up a judicial commission in response to national and international furor over the attack. The commission was supposed to submit a report in 21 days. However, eighteen months have passed and the commission has still not submitted the report. Meanwhile, Mir and other journalists continue to receive threats and face a sense of increasing insecurity. The commission needs to complete the work expeditiously and submit the report which should fix responsibility and be made public.
Cases that are not high profile are disposed of at the local level. One such example is that of the fatal shooting of Shan Dahar, reporter of “Abb Takk” TV channel on the night of December 31, 2013 in Badh, in Larkana district of Sindh province of Pakistan. He was shot in his back and was taken to the hospital where he remained unattended until he succumbed to his injuries in the early hours of January 1, 2014. The local police, in an investigation that his family believes to be flawed and motivated, termed the death as an accidental death as a result of shooting on New Year’s Eve. However, the family believes he was targeted because of his stories on use of fake medicines in local hospitals. Despite repeated promises, including those by Minister of Information and Broadcasting Pervez Rashid, to have the case reinvestigated, not action has been taken by the provincial or federal government.
Free media is essential to democracy in Pakistan as it promotes transparency and accountability, a prerequisite of sustained economic uplift. The impunity enjoyed by those who attack journalists is seriously hampering press freedom in Pakistan and all stakeholders, including media organisations, the government and civil society should join hands to devise some mechanisms for ensuring safety of working journalists.
Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), a non-governmental organization, is an independent, media documentation and training center, committed to promoting and defending freedom of expression recommends the following steps to control the alarming level of violence against media, and to end impunity for those who attack media practitioners and institutions.
1. Criminal cases should not only be registered but should also be properly investigated and prosecuted against the perpetrators of violence against media.
2. A special prosecutor on violence against media should be established at federal and provincial level to investigate cases of violence against media.
3. Media itself should take the lead in ensuring safety of media practitioners. Local, national and international print, electronic and online media should ensure long-term follow up of cases of assault on media organisations and workers
4. Journalists should be provided with safety and first aid trainings and guidance on how to report in hostile environment. Journalists working in conflict areas should also be provided with guidance in recognizing and dealing with stress and post-traumatic stress.
5. Safety equipments including bulletproof jackets and medical kits should be given to journalists covering the conflicts.
6. Threats and attacks can be reduced to some extent by adopting a professional approach and impartial and unbiased reporting. Journalists, especially those in rural areas, should be imparted trainings on writing skills, language proficiency, editing and interviewing techniques to enhance their capabilities.
7. Employers should provide journalists life and medical insurance and also compensation in case of death or injury related to their work. As Pakistani journalists are victims of circumstances that are both local and global in nature, the government should also compensate to the families of journalists, killed in the line of duty.
8. Proper medical treatment, including treatment abroad, should be provided to media workers who have been subjected to violence.
9. In addition to compensation by employers and government, funds should be set up for families of journalists who had been murdered or injured. These funds could be operated by the immediate families of the victimized journalists.
10. There is need to for media organisations to develop ‘operating procedures’ with law enforcement agencies that will allow journalists to cover the conflict situations with greater safety.
11. Arrangements should be made in all major cities to provide refuge and safe houses for the journalists who are forced to leave their homes so that they can live and work in safer cities.
12. Media organisations should interact with all stakeholders including government departments, political parties and groups and security agencies to develop strategies that promote safety of journalists and other media workers.
13. Employers should give journalists facing threats the option of transferring them to safer cities for extended periods of time. The remunerations during these periods should be based on the actual living expenses in these cities, which are generally higher than rural areas.
14. At times, insensitive and misinformed editors push their reporters and photojournalists into the situations where they have to put their life and well-being at risk for getting the stories. There is a need to create awareness and sensitizing the owners of the media organizations, as well as, those who are working on desk to realize the ground realities and threats being faced by the journalists working in fields especially in conflict areas.
15. Some international media organisations do provide proper safety trainings and equipment to their correspondents; however, journalists working for international media organisations as stringers or on freelance basis in remote areas of FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan do not receive adequate training or support. As reporting for international media carries greater risk for these stringers, these organisations should provide security training and support, as well as, life and medical insurance for their stringers and freelancers working in conflict area.