REPORTING on trouble spots such as Balochistan or the operation against extremists in the northwest has often brought threats, even violence to the country’s media organisations and their workers. But this past week brought to light a new dimension of the issue that renders the field even more treacherous for media persons and their organisations. On Friday, towns and cities across the country saw protests organised by various religious organisations against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. Some of these demonstrations and sit-ins turned violent, with the ire reserved mainly for representatives of the news media. The worst incident occurred in Hyderabad, where an angry mob descended on the Press Club and set fire to furniture, computers, and other equipment, and assaulted journalists and staff. In Lahore and Karachi, the offices of electronic news organisations came under attack; in other places where protesters gathered, DSNG vans and media staff were pelted with stones or roughed up. Over half a dozen media people were injured, with their equipment burnt or destroyed. The reason? News organisations were exercising their right of editorial judgement and making their own decisions about the extent to which they wanted to cover the protests or the man on whom they centred. Indeed, the same reason caused protesters to physically assault a couple of media men in Karachi on the day that Qadri’s execution took place.
Where the protesters turned violent in their effort to dictate to the media, the state on its part too did not refrain from making the attempt. On Tuesday, when Qadri’s burial was scheduled and his supporters started travelling towards Rawalpindi where the funeral was to be held, Pemra tweeted an advisory asking channels to “[…] refrain from inciting sectarianism, hatred or violence through shows […]” etc. While this had an effect on some of the channels, the fact remains that the authorities were presumptuous enough to assume that this country’s media freedoms, won at such hard cost, could very easily be eroded. While the violence against media persons is deserving of the strongest condemnation, the state must shoulder its share of censure as well. Media organisations should, meanwhile, continue to stand fast against any attempt to influence their output, and ensure that criticism cannot be levelled against them through remaining impartial, honest, and operating in the context of the highest ideals of journalism.