Journalism in Pakistan has always been marked with bloodshed and fraught with risks, but the recent round of violence against journalists appears to be part of a systematic campaign to stem dissent to militant groups.
On March 28, prominent columnist and television host Raza Rumi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Lahore after he left the office of Pakistan’s Express Media Group. His driver, Mohammad Mustafa, was killed and a guard was injured in the attack. Rumi hosts a show on Express’s Urdu-language channel and is a vocal critic of discrimination against religious minorities and Pakistan’s militant groups generally.
The attack on Rumi is the fifth such incident targeting employees or offices of the Express Media Group since August 2013. There have been a range of attacks — from three staffers being killed while sitting in a parked news van to the group’s bureau chief in Peshawar finding a bomb outside his house. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the former, stating that: “This is a war of ideologies and whosoever will oppose us in this war of ideologies, will play the role of enemy and we will also attack them.”
In a disconcerting development that has created a palatable sense of fear, a number of Pakistani journalists and editors are believed to be on a hit list of militants. Few know why they are being targeted, but the future looks bleak for the viability of an independent Pakistani press and the safety of journalists in the country.
In a column published after he survived the assassination attempt, Rumi wrote: “Pakistan’s journalists face the oddest of challenges. They are being coerced into silence or singing praises of extremists and advocating legitimacy for their operations. Pakistan’s politicians have almost given up, as their private and public statements are at variance and they have accepted that this ‘new Pakistan’ of fear, threats and unpunished violence is what they have to deal with.”
The threats to Pakistani journalists have increased over the years, and the offices of newspapers and television stations have been fortified with barbed wire, high walls, and security guards. But as the Taliban’s former spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan has said forebodingly: “If we can get inside military installations, media offices should not be too much of a challenge.”
The threat of physical harm is one that many journalists now live with in Pakistan, a country where reporting is already an incredibly difficult task. Censorship has long plagued the Pakistani press, and journalists have suffered for attempting to report the truth under military regimes and democratic governments. Ask any reporter in Pakistan if they have ever been threatened, and they’ll name everyone from politicians to Mafioso, who court and censure journalists in often equal measure.
Despite the oft-used cliché that a ‘vibrant press’ exists in Pakistan, journalists are routinely threatened and cautioned against reporting on ‘controversial’ issues. The list of journalists targeted for their work — from freelance journalist Hayatullah Khan, who was found dead after reporting on the CIA-run drone program, to Asia Times correspondent Saleem Shahzad, whose body was found in a canal after he privately expressed fears about the military establishment — grows longer every year. Self-censorship is now ingrained in many newsrooms, where taboo subjects range from political scandals and major business groups to the intelligence services.
But there is little outrage at threats to journalists and the press in Pakistan. In fact, raging against the press is almost a national pastime, with politicians and conspiracy theorists routinely making lurid allegations. This has fostered an environment where violence is seen as an almost legitimate course of action. Social media websites and popular discussion forums are flooded with allegations against journalists, from accusations that they are on the payroll of foreign spy agencies to calling them biased and unprofessional. In a leaked judicial commission report investigating the May 2, 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Ahmad Shuja Pasha claimed that Pakistani journalists were involved in a campaign against the agency, accusing them of being “heavily bribed with money, women and alcohol.”
There is no clear solution to protecting journalists in Pakistan. Recommendations for media safety guidelines have been drawn up several times but rarely acted on. There is little scope for media groups to work together — many refuse to name each other in print or in broadcast, even when attacks take place. But most importantly, the current sense of confusion in Pakistan — on what the government is negotiating with militant groups and what it is preparing to accede — has led to a state where journalists appear to be fair game in the war against militancy. The most one can hope for is that law enforcement agencies and the judiciary can act swiftly to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the attacks, and that media organizations can bolster security outside their offices. These steps, however, can only go so far if the enemy is just at the doorstep.
Despite this, Pakistan’s journalists have continued to work. A largely unacknowledged network of stringers, fixers, and freelancers has helped foreign news organizations and wire services cover the region. But the attack on Rumi is a reminder of the long-standing piece of advice routinely exchanged by Pakistani journalists — ‘cover the story, don’t become the story.’ That no longer appears to be an option.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently made a set of commitments to the Committee to Protect Journalists, including that the protection of journalists would be a negotiating point in peace talks with the Taliban. But like its predecessors, the Sharif administration has abandoned the idea of protecting Pakistani citizens, let alone journalists, in its quest to appease militant groups. It would be foolishly optimistic to expect that the prime minister — or any other official — will be moved by the death of yet another innocent citizen.
Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist based in Karachi and a Carnegie Fellow at the New America Foundation. She is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! (Random House India, 2014) and No Team of Angels (First Draft Publishing, forthcoming.) She tweets at @Saba_Imtiaz and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org