ISSN 2330-717X

Pakistan: Stifled Media – Analysis


By Sanchita Bhattacharya*

On April 30, 2019, unidentified assailants shot dead journalist Malik Amanullah Khan near Landa Sharif Adda on the Multan-Dera Road in Paroa Tehsil (revenue unit) of Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Amanullah Khan was a local reporter who wrote for Urdu daily Meezan-e-Adl and was Chairman of Paroa Press Club.

Earlier, on December 3, 2018, Nurul Hasan, a Nowshera-based reporter of a private television channel, was shot dead by unknown motorcyclists in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, available since March 2000, the first incident of killing of journalists was recorded on February 7, 2005, when two journalists were shot dead by armed assailants in Wana, the headquarters of the then South Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Since then, according to partial data collated by SATP, at least 38 journalists have been killed in Pakistan. A high of six journalists were killed in the year 2013 followed by five in 2010; four each in 2009, 2011 and 2012; three each in 2014 and 2015; two each in 2005 and 2017; and one each in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2018 and 2019. No such fatality was recorded in years 2000 to 2004. These numbers are likely underestimates. 

Also, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 61 journalists have been killed in Pakistan between 1992 and 2018. A maximum of eight journalists were killed in 2010 followed by seven each in 2011 and 2012; five each in 2007, 2008 and 2013; four in 2009, three in 2014; two each in 1994, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2016; one each in 1997, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2015, 2017 and 2018. No fatality was recorded in years 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2001.

Journalists in Pakistan have been subjected to abduction; murder by beheading, target killing, throat-slitting, hurling of bombs and beating to death; physical torture and suicide attack. And it is not just terrorists, insurgents, separatists, gangsters and drug traffickers whom journalists have to fear: state sponsored actors, including intelligence agencies, also pose a threat.

In one prominent case, on May 29, 2011, Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online, was abducted after he exposed links between al Qaeda, a group of Naval personnel and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the attack at the Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran within Faisal Naval Airbase in Karachi. 10 Security Force (SF) personnel were killed in the terrorist attack. Later on, June 1, 2011, his body was found with signs of torture, in the Mandi Bahauddin District of Punjab Province. In July 2011, The New York Times reported that US officials had reliable intelligence that showed that the ISI was responsible for Shahzad’s murder. Predictably, in January, 2012, Pakistan’s official commission of inquiry concluded that the perpetrators were unknown, a finding that was widely criticized as lacking credibility.

Though the available data clearly indicates that fewer journalists have been killed over past few years, reports show that the media is more stifled than it was earlier. The CPJ Annual Report 2018 thus observes,

…Despite a decline in fatal violence against journalists the media environment is worse today than it has been in recent years… Intimidation and threats of assault have led journalists and editors to avoid reporting stories on topics that would lead them into trouble. These topics include a wide range of touchy issues: religion, Chinese investment, relations with India, militant groups, and criticism of the military.

Another CPJ report, Acts of Intimidation: In Pakistan, journalists’ fear and censorship grow even as fatal violence declines, based on interviews with journalists across Pakistan, released on September 12, 2018, highlighting the plight of journalists in the country, noted that “the deterioration in the climate for press freedom in Pakistan accompanied a reduction in murders and attacks against the media” and “the two trends are linked, with measures the military took to stomp out terrorism directly resulting in pressure on the media”. The report adds, further, “conditions for the free press are as bad as when the country was under military dictatorship, and journalists were flogged and newspapers forced to close”.

More importantly, the September report, underlined the role of military in suppressing Press freedom,

The military garnered widespread praise for its crackdown on militancy after the school attack, which resulted in a sharp decline of terrorist incidents — and in turn, violence against journalists. Yet the stepped-up activity put the military in position to exert even greater control. The military has quietly, but effectively, set restrictions on reporting: from barring access to regions including Balochistan where there is armed separatism and religious extremism, to encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect methods of intimidation, including calling editors to complain about coverage and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters. The military, intelligence, or military-linked and political groups were the suspected source of fire that resulted in half of the 22 journalist murders in the past decade. Hence it is easy to see how the military’s widening reach is viewed as a source of intimidation. The military has clashed with Pakistan’s elected government, which tried and ultimately failed to assert civilian control. Journalists find themselves in the middle of this battle, struggling to report while staying out of trouble.

Significantly, during the months before the 2018 General Elections of Pakistan, several journalists were beaten, abducted and otherwise intimidated, with just one thread tying them together – their criticism of the military.The witch-hunt against the media began after journalist Matiullah Jan wrote highly critical articles against Pakistan’s military and judiciary. On June 4, 2018, military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor held a press conference where he claimed that a handful of journalists and bloggers were “anti-State and anti-military”. Unsurprisingly just a day later, on June 5, 2018, columnist and political commentator, Gul Bukhari was abducted in an Army-controlled area of Lahore by unknown attackers, including men in military uniform. She was, however, freed a few hours later.

On the same night, BOL TV broadcast journalist Asad Kharal’s car was intercepted by masked men near Lahore airport, and he was taken out of the car and beaten. He received severe injuries and was taken to Lahore Services Hospital for medical treatment.

Earlier, on January 10, 2018, prominent Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui was beaten and threatened by armed men, during an attempt to kidnap him in broad daylight, as he took a taxi to the airport in the capital, Islamabad. A few weeks after the incident, he relocated to Paris (France). According to a July 2018 report, Siddiqui claimed,

The army and intelligence agencies were threatening me and I suspect the people who tried to kidnap me were from the army. They do not like investigative reporting that uncovers the wrongdoings of those institutions.

According to an October 2018 report, several journalists and editors were of the opinion that the ongoing hostility towards media, was more dangerous than it had been under previous Governments. They saw it as coming from all pillars of the state, with Imran Khan’s government considered closely in sync with the courts and the military. The military is accused of pressuring the courts to block any opposition or even criticism of Pakistan’s Army.

Indeed, impunity and a lack of prosecution has characterised many of the attacks on journalists in Pakistan. The impunity enjoyed by killers of journalists in Pakistan is among the highest in the world. According to a report shared by International Center for the Protection of Media Freedom and Defending the Rights of Journalists (ICPFJ) on October 31, 2018, murdered journalists and their families had received justice in only one of 26 cases over the preceding five years. Iqbal Khattak, the Executive Director of Freedom Network, which prepared the report, observed, “Journalists continue to get target killed and threats against them continue to grow and the State’s legal system (police failure) and justice system (courts failure) have failed to provide them justice.”

Significantly, amidst this enveloping environment of intimidation, fear and state failure, Cyril Almeida, the Assistant Editor of Dawn, was awarded the 2019 World Press Freedom Hero award by the International Press Institute for his ‘critical’ and ‘tenacious coverage’ of the Pakistani military-security complex. Significantly, Almeida is under trial for treason – an offence that carries a potential death penalty – for an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which the latter accused the Pakistan Army of aiding the terrorists who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 175 people, including 144 civilians, 22 Security Force personnel and all nine attackers. Afzal But, President of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, notes, “This is the darkest period for journalism in the country’s history, no doubt about it.”

Assessing the overall situation of media, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator, Steven Butler, stated,

While the decline in the killing of journalists is encouraging, the government needs to counteract pressures that have resulted in rampant self-censorship and threats to the media. Pakistan must address the disturbing trend of impunity and attacks on journalists to shore up this faltering pillar of democracy.

Against this backdrop, Pakistan saw its first-ever two-day (May 2 and May 3, 2019) Sahafi (Journalist) Summit held in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, to discuss at length the fast-emerging challenges to journalism in the country, including threats to independent news media from digital disinformation and financial cuts. The summit reportedly generated robust and inclusive discussions on the current challenges faced by the news industry in Pakistan, focusing, inter alia, on the coordinated and malicious spread of disinformation, the crisis of media literacy, regulations and the broadcast media’s struggling business model for revenue generation. The challenges faced by Pakistani women reporters were also discussed along with Pakistan’s media economy, including the issue of mass layoffs, investment in digital news and services and the role of news media owners.

In a society fixated on ‘righteous’ conduct overwhelmingly defined by religious extremism and militarized hypernationlism, journalists have come to dread violence for doing their job. With repeated physical attacks, fear has taken over the media, resulting in unprecedented self-imposed censorship. 

*Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

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SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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