By Ambreen Agha*
My family has been falsely implicated in drug racket. It is distressing to see that my family is suffering because of my profession. It is difficult to be a journalist in Pakistan and that too in tribal areas. You are punished for bringing out stories that do not sit well with the military establishment, which is ubiquitous here. We see Taliban commanders visiting military quarters in the tribal belt. What happens inside is not for us to know. We are caught between the military and the terrorists. Being a journalist has cost me my family, who disowned me after the slapping of false charges. And now I am without money, looking for alternative means of sustenance. — An unnamed journalist from an unspecified location in tribal areas to SAIR .
Media in Pakistan, particular in the tribal regions, is under siege. Working under constant threat to life and livelihood, media personnel have faced a backlash from both state and anti-state elements. These include the warring political parties, military intelligence agencies and terrorist formations operating across the country.
As freedom becomes increasingly elusive for media personnel in the country, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) report, released on February 3, 2016, noted that Pakistan runs fourth on the list of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, recording a total of 115 killings since 1990. According to partial data compiled by Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), a total of 57 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks since 1994 (data till September 11, 2016).
Meanwhile, the World Press Freedom Index – 2016, published by Reporters without Borders (RWB), ranked Pakistan at 147 out of 180 countries. The RWB Report on Pakistan, “Targeted on all Sides”, states,
Journalists are targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organizations and Pakistan’s feared intelligence organizations, all of which are on RSF’s [Reporters Sans Frontières] list of predators of press freedom. Although at war with each other, they are all always ready to denounce acts of “sacrilege” by the media. Inevitably, self-censorship is widely practiced within news organizations…
In a recent incident on August 22, 2016, a group of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) workers attacked the office of ARY News Channel, killing one person and injuring several others, near Zainab Market in the Saddar Town of Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. A day earlier, another group of infuriated MQM protestors had damaged the Digital Satellite News Gathering (DSNG) van of the Samaa TV channel in the Liaquatabad Town of Karachi. The protestors involved in both these attacks had alleged lack of “due media coverage” of MQM workers, who had been protesting since August 18, 2016, against the random disappearances and arrest of party workers by the paramilitary Rangers ever since the beginning of the ongoing ‘Targeted Action’ against terrorists and criminals in the commercial capital. During a meeting of the Sindh Apex Committee headed by Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah on August 31, 2016, Rangers Director General Major General Bilal Akbar informed the participants that 848 ‘target killers’ involved in 7,224 cases have been arrested since September 4, 2013, in Karachi, of which 654 suspects were affiliated with MQM. The MQM suspects have allegedly confessed to being involved in 5,863 incidents of target killings.
In the past, religious-political parties have also brazenly attacked the media. Following the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, an Elite Force commando convicted of killing former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, angry protesters attacked media houses and facilities in Sindh and Punjab on March 1, 2016, leaving over half a dozen media people injured, and equipment burnt or destroyed. Qadri was executed on February 29, 2016, at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi District of Punjab. The most violent attack occurred in the Hyderabad District of Sindh, where a demonstration was staged by several religious parties against Qadri’s execution. The collective call for protest outside the Hyderabad Press Club was given by different religious organizations and parties, including, Milli Yakjehti Council, Jama’at-e-Ulema Pakistan (JuP) and Pakistan Sunni Tehreek (PST). Apart from burning tyres and blocking roads, the enraged mobs burned a counter at the Hyderabad Press Club, injuring four journalists and a Press Club employee. They also beat up journalists en route to Karachi. Two journalists, who were travelling to cover the protest in Karachi’s Malir Town were pulled out of the car and beaten up. The cameraman was also dragged out of the van. The infuriated protestors damaged the camera and the vehicle.
The media has been targeted by the country’s proliferation of terrorist formations. On May 7, 2016, unidentified terrorists killed two people, including Shia religious scholar and rights activist Syed Khurram Zaki and his journalist friend Rao Khalid, in North Karachi Town. While Khalid was currently working as a journalist, Zaki was a former journalist. No outfit claimed responsibility for the attack.
On November 22, 2015, unidentified armed assailants shot dead TV journalist Hafeez ur Rehman (42), on the outskirts of the Kohat District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Though terrorist outfits, primarily the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have claimed responsibility for these attacks, the media has been directed by the Pakistan Army not to report.
The unnamed journalist from tribal area, in a conversation with this writer, stated,
Since the launch of the NAP [National Action Plan (NAP), media’s coverage of the conflict in Pakistan and more specifically in the tribal area is dictated by the Army. There is a clear instruction to all journalists, independent or affiliated, working in the tribal belt to not report claims of responsibility by terrorist outfits. The military has drawn the line for the journalists working on the ground. There are claims made by the Pakistani Taliban [TTP] after every attack that we are categorically told to ignore. Reporting a terror claim is a crime now. In the tribal areas, reporters risk it all to deliver the news independently and objectively. Instead, it is the Army’s media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), which has increased its activities in the last few years.
The 20-point NAP came as a counter-terrorism measure on December 24, 2014, after the gruesome December 16, 2015, Peshawar Army Public School massacre .
Corroborating this claim, the last attack on the media claimed by TTP was on January 17, 2014, when at least three Express News workers, identified as driver Khalid, technician Waqas and security guard Ashraf, were shot dead after TTP terrorists ambushed a stationary DSNG van near Matric Board Office in the North Nazimabad Town of Karachi. In a live telephone call from Afghanistan TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan declared,
We accept responsibility. I would like to present some of its reasons: At present, Pakistani media is playing the role of (enemies and spread) venomous propaganda against Tehreek-e-Taliban. They have assumed the (role of) opposition. We had intimated the media earlier and warn it once again that (they must) side with us in this venomous propaganda (sic).”
Five days later, on January 23, 2014, TTP issued a 29-page fatwa (edict) against the media, declaring it a “party to the conflict” in the country. Since TTP’s creation in 2007, this was the first ever fatwa issued by the terrorist organization against the media, drawing up a hit-list of journalists and publishers across the country. The fatwa accuses media of siding with “disbelievers” against Muslims in the “war on Islam”. It alleged that the media was inciting people against mujahidin (holy warriors) through propaganda, and was propagating promiscuity and secularism. One of the author’s of the fatwa, Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, ‘deputy chief’ of TTP, separated journalists into three categories – murjif, muqatil and Sa’ee bil fasad. Explaining the terms further in the fatwa, Haqqani stated,
Murjif is someone who engages in propaganda against Muslims during a war between Islam and disbelief. Muqatil is someone who incites disbelievers and their allies to act against Muslims, while the third category (Sa’ee bil fasad) includes those who allegedly corrupt Muslim society through steps like replacing Islamic ideology with secular beliefs.
While sending the fatwa to Dawn, the outfit’s spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan warned, “Media could mend its ways and become a neutral entity. Otherwise, the media should not feel secure. A few barriers and security escorts will not help. If we can get inside military installations, media offices should not be too much of a challenge.”
Indeed, at least 13 attacks with nine fatalities have been recorded since the declaration of the fatwa on January 23, 2014.
The military establishment has played a malicious role in this enduring wave of intolerance against the media. During the 139th Corps Commanders Conference held at the General Headquarters (GHQ) on June 9, 2011, the then Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, warned critics to stop trying to deliberately run down the Armed Forces and the Army as an institution, and to put an end to “any effort to create divisions between important institutions of the country.” The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other Pakistani intelligence agencies have a long history of intimidation, abduction and secret killings of those who challenge or expose them.
One prominent incident in this category was the abduction, torture and brutal murder of Asia Times Online Pakistan Bureau Chief, Syed Saleem Shahzad, on June 1, 2011, in the Mandi Bahauddin District of Punjab Province. Shehzad was abducted on May 29, 2011, by the ISI just one day after he exposed links between al Qaeda, a group of naval personnel and the ISI, in the deadly attack on the Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran within the Faisal Naval Airbase in Karachi on May 22, 2011. 10 Security Force (SF) personnel were killed in the attack. Shahzad’s killing was a deliberate and planned targeted killing that sent shock waves through Pakistan’s journalist fraternity and civil society.
In another such attack, Hamid Mir, the anchor on Geo News, was shot at and injured by four unidentified armed pillion riders on April 19, 2014, in Sharah-e-Faisal Town of Karachi. Before the attack, Mir had told his colleagues and friends that if he was attacked, Pakistan’s ISI, “and its chief Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul-Islam will be responsible”. On the day of the attack, Geo News disclosed that Mir had also sent a recorded video to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) implicating the ISI in any possible attempt on his life. Mir had claimed that the Agency had been infuriated by his Capital Talk programmes that criticised ISI’s tactics against the separatists in Balochistan, where the military is accused of enforced disappearances and killings.
Persistent efforts by the Army and its agencies to silence the media over decades have diminished the spaces of freedom within Pakistan. There have been serious concerns voiced by activists regarding the “muzzling of free speech” in Pakistan. Expressing concern over the role of the ISPR department on June 15, 2016, Asma Jahangir, former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), appeared before a two-judge Supreme Court bench consisting of Justices Ejaz Afzal Khan and Qazi Faez Isa, which was hearing petitions filed by journalists Hamid Mir, Absar Alam and others, seeking a court order abolishing the secret fund being maintained by the Information Ministry. Jahangir asserted that ISPR should also be monitored by regulatory authorities and requested the Court to investigate the law under which the Army’s media cell was operating. “We have been talking a lot about the civilian government, but the media cell of the [army] should also be monitored,” Jahangir argued.
In the ongoing “war of ideologies”, as TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan called it after the January 17, 2014, attack on Express News, the media has borne the brunt from all the three quarters – political, military and terrorist. An environment of repression has been created, enforced by an unholy alliance of Islamist extremists, radicalized political parties and the omnipresent Army and its agencies, within a culture of enveloping immunity, expanding spaces for future ideological wars.
* Ambreen Agha
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management