On March 19, a delegation of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to express concerns about the safety of media workers and was assured of the government’s cooperation in this regard. Yet, the very same evening, a bomb was found outside the residence of a senior Peshawar-based journalist. Potential disaster was averted because of the diligence of the journalist — Jamshed Baghwan, the Peshawar bureau chief of Express News — who spotted a suspicious package outside his gate and called the Bomb Disposal Squad. It was found to be a medium-sized bomb that could have done a lot of damage, but was thankfully defused. Call it irony if you will — or a sign of times.
The fact is that being a journalist in Pakistan is becoming increasingly difficult by the day. It is also a fact that Express Media Group, in particular, has been in the crosshairs of intolerance for months now and the latest averted disaster follows three earlier brazen bomb and gun attacks on the group’s offices and employees, one of which has resulted in three deaths. No headway has been made in investigations into the incidents and the perpetrators are still at large — free to continue their agenda of repressing the freedom of expression that is central to a free media’s existence, as they did once again on March 19.
Impunity breeds increased audaciousness and this trend will continue until the government doesn’t step up and act against violence and threats against the fourth estate. Here’s another fact: some 47 Pakistani journalists have been killed in the line of duty over the last decade, many of them directly targeted and not killed in crossfire. Until early March, not a single conviction had taken place. Things were looking up on March 3, when six people were convicted in the 2011 murder of journalist Wali Babar — the first ever for the murder of a Pakistani journalist. Yet, even this conviction has its low points. The actual murderers remain absconders even though they have been given the death sentence (the six caught have been given life).
Furthermore, let us also not forget that the conviction on the loss of one life came at the cost of many more murders of witnesses, lawyers and policemen associated with the case — murders that now themselves require justice. Despite this, the CPJ delegation expressed confidence in the intentions of the prime minister and his new government to help the media continue and expand their critical role — and one can only hope this is true.
Given the situation on the ground, intentions need to translate into action on a war footing and in this regard, the government’s immediate announcement of the creation of “special prosecutors in all four provinces and federally to oversee cases involving crimes against journalists” is extremely welcome and deserves widespread appreciation. The other pledges made by the prime minister include some heartening promises, too. Among other things, he pledged to “establish a joint government-journalist commission to address continued attacks on journalists and the impunity with which they occur, expedite the prosecution of the killers of journalists by changing trial venues and expanding witness protection programmes, include the protection of journalists as a negotiating point in upcoming peace talks with the Taliban, speak out in support of media freedom and in support of journalists under attack, particularly in high-conflict areas like Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”
These are big words from the highest office in the land. One hopes that they are acted upon and no journalist has to face the terror of coming home to a bomb planted outside their gate again.