Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Media personnel are targeted by militants; religious, ethnic, and separatist groups; intelligence and law enforcement agencies; and even mainstream political parties. The country—a frontline state for almost four decades—suffers from a polarized society and a culture of intolerance. As rule of law is not well established, perpetrators of violence against media enjoy near absolute impunity, seriously undermining freedom of expression.
Since 2001, the Pakistan Press Foundation has documented 405 cases of violence against media personnel, including 49 murders, 269 assaults, and 42 abductions and detentions. Given this dire state of affairs, it was shocking that the media companies themselves were not working collectively for the safety of media professionals.
Launched in December 2015, the Editors for Safety (EfS) initiative has improved news coverage of violence against Pakistani media professionals. Comprised of the country’s leading editors, publishers, and media owners, EfS’s philosophy is that an attack on one media professional or organization should be considered an attack on the entire Pakistani media.
Zaffar Abbas, founding chairman of EfS and editor of leading English-language daily newspaper Dawn, explaining the reasons behind creating this initiative, says that when a journalist was targeted, it was a big story for his or her media organization but covered—if at all—as a routine story by the others. Most papers would not even mention the name of the media outlet that was attacked. “There was a realization that the reason media outlets were not able to speak with one voice was their commercial interests, and this lack of unity had become a huge problem for the safety of journalists,” he adds.
Thus, editors and directors of leading newspapers and television channels met in Istanbul in June 2015 to discuss the safety of Pakistani media. They came to the conclusion that, despite their different editorial lines and the fact that competing in a difficult market led them to disagree on many issues, they could agree on the common goal of responding to the growing threats against them. Then and there, they decided to unite for safety. The participants tasked Abbas with consulting the other editors to establish an effective mechanism to promote media safety. The result was Editors for Safety.
Abbas is satisfied with the progress EfS has made in just a few months. “No one in the journalistic fraternity in Pakistan could believe that an attack on a media house would be breaking news in media groups that are fierce competitors,” he beams. In a break from previous norms, television channels and newspapers now routinely highlight attacks on other organizations and journalists, regardless of the outlet.
The second major success has been real-time coordination of editors and directors whenever journalists are attacked or threatened. A powerful example of this was when Siddique Baloch, editor of the Baluchistan Express, sent a message to the group that armed men had broken into the house of journalist Afzal Mughal in Quetta and abducted him after kicking and punching him in front of his wife and children. Abbas sent an urgent appeal to television channels to highlight the issue until Mughal’s safe return. “Critical at this point is to make every effort not only to save his life, but also to protect him from possible torture,” said the message sent by Abbas. The media responded with breaking news, tickers, and updates. Within hours, Mughal was released and back with his family.
Less dramatic but equally important are the exchanges between the group’s editorial leadership every time media are threatened. These include acting as a unified front in a number of cases, such as when Islamic State militants threw grenades at offices of media outlets and fired on mobile television crews. These discussions are helping to create an informal understanding around editorial issues, such as how to avoid giving coverage to hoaxes and rumors of attacks or bomb threats.
Abbas feels that much more needs to be done, however. “While these are important first steps, the ultimate ambition is to end violence against media and the culture of impunity,” he says.
One area of weakness is the lack of follow-up coverage of cases of violence against journalists. After the initial media attention, which usually lasts about a week, cases are typically forgotten, with no coverage of investigations or prosecutions in the courts. Thus, the authorities feel little pressure to bring the perpetrators to justice. One of the goals, therefore, of EfS is to ensure that sustained coverage—and attention by the media community—can place further pressure on authorities to address this growing impunity.
Abbas believes it is the responsibility of the government to ensure a safe environment for the media to function without fear. This will only be possible if the media acts with one voice to respond to incidents of violence.