As the World Press Freedom Day is upon us this year, Raza Rumi, who paid a heavy price for his commentaries, activism for a censor-free press for Pakistan, when he looks back, he feels he has come a long way since the day he survived an assassination attack on his life on March 28, 2014, near Raja Market in Lahore.
Five years on, the case of the assassination bid on his life has yet to be concluded, and his own life is far from being called a normal one. But he has learned many hard lessons, which if analyzed, can be a textbook for the safety of the journalists of Pakistan and other parts of the world where press freedom is elusive.
On March 28, 2014, then a popular talk show’s analyst with Express News, Mr Rumi’s car came under attack near Raja Market, where his driver Mustafa was killed and guard Anwar Hussain injured. According to the capital city police officer Shafiq Ahmed, 11 bullet cases were found at the scene.
Though he escaped unhurt, the ensuing days were traumatic and trouble-filled.
“The first thing after the attack was the well-being of the family of driver Mustafa, who was the only bread-winner of a family of six people,” says Rumi, who is currently in the US, where he pursues his journalistic occupation as well a teaching job at Cornell University and Ithaca College.
Though he did not talk much about what he did for the family of the deceased driver, he says the heirs are secure and safe without any financial worries. “I want to respect their privacy and dignity,” he added.
“Those associated with journalists are also at risk, and unfortunately their plights are hardly covered by the media. There must be some mechanism to support such people in case of eventualities,” he said.
The attack got a huge coverage from his TV channel – Express News.
According to Rumi, “The channel stood by me in the initial days. They covered the attack at length, and paid my salaries on time.” He, however, says other TV channels lacked guts to cover the assassination bid on their journalist colleague. “All media needs to sheds biases or old style journalism rules aside when it is the matter of a journalist colleague regardless of their media house affiliation,” he says.
Express-News Executive Producer Owais Hameed says this was the duty of the channel to stand by their staffer.
“Not only did we backed Raza Rumi, his co-host NabeelaSindhu, who was also under threat, was also provided support,” he says. MsSindhu was given leaves so that she overcome the ensuing trauma.” The channel continued the follow-up of the case. Other than the Express-News, Safma, the Federal Union of Journalists and the Lahore Press Club out and out condemned the attack. Lahore Press Club acting president ZulfiqarMehtu says the press club took out processions in those time when threats on journalists were a reality. Many regional press clubs across the country protested against this attack.
Activism and support by the colleagues, however, hardly lessened the level of threats on Rumi.
Friends in security agencies continued telling Mr Rumi to be vigilant as he was under threat. The warning was not unfounded. A few months before the attack, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan issued a list of people to be attacked, and Rumi was on the list.
“I was naïve to ignore such threats. The lesson for all is: never ignore threats. If you receive death threats, make adequate arrangements for your security, as no news is worth your life.” Rumi says he received threats after the attack. The police advised him not to leave the house.
To avoid virtual house arrest, Rumi had no other option but to leave Pakistan. He landed in the US and joined his siblings who had been settled there for long.
Within a month of the attack, the Garden Town police said they arrested six people, alleged attackers of Rumi. According to Garden Town police investigation officer of the case, Haider, the gang, led by Abdul RaufGujjar belonged to the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.
The pursuit of the case endangered the lives of the family of deceased Mustafa, as they received a threat from the militants. Since then, they have gone underground, while Rumi underwent his own share of trauma.
“I remained scared; would often see nightmare and the body of deceased Mustafa haunted me; I suffered sleeplessness. Even now I’m suffering from trauma.”
In the US, the Committee to Protect Journalists and many other organisations supported Rumi. He sought trauma counselling.
“For the journalist undergoing the trauma must undergo psychological counselling. It helps a lot. These sessions helped me overcome post-trauma disorder. It is an ongoing process. One may live with trauma, guilt for life if no psychological help is arranged.”
What was the biggest consequence of the attack?
“Displacement. Coming to the US was never on my mind. In fact, I left a cushy job abroad in 2008 to return to Pakistan and pursue journalism. I miss my country, my community, my passion to do journalistic work with my people in Pakistan.”
According to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sources, a draft of Journalists Safety, Security and Protection Bill, 2018 has been prepared for the welfare of the journalists. The bill is in the process of consultations. According to the draft, sources said, the journalists and non-journalists workers coming under attack would be provided with both medical and legal aid from a fund. The ministry has disbursed Rs30,573,570 since 2015 to journalists and media workers. The proposed bill also extends aid to the families of journalists and media houses employees who are killed while on duty. The draft bill also ensures the investigation of crime or threats against journalists.
After five years of the attack, now Rumi is able to spend a few months in Pakistan.
“My last visit was three months long.”
He still avoids public life here while being in Pakistan.
“Had my attackers been punished, I would have felt a sigh of relief.”
His case was trialled in the military court, and in 2016, the military court sentenced them to death. The convicted men have approached superior courts to reverse the judgements.
“I want justice for the attackers too. First, one has to be absolutely sure if they’re the real attackers. Second, I don’t want a death sentence for them. I want justice, not revenge.”
Rumi lives in the US, while his heart is in Pakistan.
“Many advised me to seek asylum but I’m not willing to do that. Instead, I chose a long term visa that would enable me to work here. My identity will always be that of a Pakistani. I’m prouder of who I’m.”