Pakistan: Press Under Stress – Analysis


By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*

Journalists across Pakistan are under continuous threat. According to a report titled 100 per cent Impunity for Killers, 0 per cent Justice for Pakistan’s Murdered Journalists: Crime and Punishment in Pakistan’s Journalism World, released by the Freedom Network (a Pakistan-based media and development sector watchdog) on October 31, 2019, at least 33 journalists have been killed for their work in Pakistan over the preceding six years. The report stated that at least seven of these killings have taken place in the preceding year (November 2018 to October 2019).

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 110 journalists have been killed, while another 519 sustained injuries, in attacks since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflict in Pakistan. 451 journalists have been arrested and another 350 intimidated in the line of duty over the same period. In the current year, there four attacks have resulted in the deaths of four journalists and injury to one (data till November 24, 2019).

Attack on Journalists: 2000-2019

YearsKilledAssault/ InjuredArrested/ abductedIntimidatedBanned/ Barred / CensoredDamage to Property
Source: 2000-2009: Intermedia; 2010-2019: South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP)
*Data till November 24, 2019

Some of the prominent incidents in the current year include:

September 7, 2019: Journalist, Zafar Abbas (40) went missing, and was found dead four days later, on September 11, in Punjab. Zafar Abbas was working for 7 News (an Urdu language news channel based in Lahore) from Mailsi town of Vehari District. His body was found in a dry well at Mauza Kali Shah within the jurisdiction of Mitro Police Station. Rana Akram, the Station House Officer (SHO) of Mitro disclosed that Abbas was returning home late at night from the Kot Malik area on September 7, when he went missing.

July 30, 2019: A local journalist Jamil Ahmed, sub-editor at a Daily, Azadi, was shot at and critically injured in the Kirani road area on the outskirts of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. Jamil Ahmed was going home after completing his shift late at night when armed men shot him several times in the Kirani road area. “Four bullets are lodged in his body,” officials said on Saturday, adding that the shooters managed to escape after the attack.

June 16, 2019: Muhammad Bilal Khan, a 22-year-old journalist, was killed in the Sector G-9 area of the federal capital, Islamabad. Muhammad Bilal Khan, who ran a YouTube channel on politics, was stabbed to death, Superintendent of Police (SP) Saddar Malik Naeem said. According to the Police official, Khan — who had over 16,000 followers on Twitter, over 48,000 on his YouTube channel and over 22,000 on Facebook — received a phone call from an unidentified person to come to G-9, “where a man took him into the forest”. The suspect then used a dagger to murder Khan, Police disclosed, adding that the sound of firing was also heard from the area. Several Twitter users asserted that his criticism of the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) led to his killing.

According to the Freedom Network report, of the 33 journalists killed, 23 were from the print media, nine were working for the electronic media and one for Radio. Thus, print media journalists in Pakistan were the most vulnerable, accounting for 69.6 per cent of the fatalities, as against 27.2 per cent in the electronic media, and 3.2 on radio. Of the 23 murdered journalists working for print media, eight were based in KP (34.7 per cent), seven in Punjab (30.4 per cent), five in Balochistan (21.7 per cent) and three in Sindh (13 per cent). In this period, no journalist primarily working for print media were murdered in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) or Islamabad. Of the 9 murdered journalists working for TV channels, four were based in Sindh (44.4 per cent), three in Punjab (33.3 per cent) and two in KP (22.2 per cent), including one in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), merged into KP on May 31, 2018. One radio journalist was also killed in KP. The highest risk of murder was thus faced by journalists in KP – 11 (33.3 per cent), Punjab –  nine (27.2 per cent), Sindh – seven (21.2 per cent), Balochistan – five (15.1 per cent) and Islamabad – one (3 per cent).

Freedom Network also issued a ‘Pakistan Impunity Scorecard’ which revealed that a total of 32 First Information Reports (FIRs) were registered for the murder of 33 journalists during the period 2013-19; Police filed challans (charge-sheets) in only 20 cases (60 per cent of cases). Prosecution and trial by courts were completed in only six cases (18 per cent). This data includes the cases of seven journalists murdered in Pakistan in the past one year (between November 2018 and October 2019). FIRs were registered in all seven cases, but charge-sheets were filed in only four cases. The level of impunity enjoyed by killers of journalists in Pakistan is almost complete. The killer of only one of the 33 journalists murdered in the period 2013-19, has been convicted.

Pakistan is among 13 countries where journalists were murdered and their killers go free due to “unchecked corruption, ineffective institutions, and lack of political will to pursue robust investigations”, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report noted on October 28, 2019. The 2019 Global Impunity Index which examined journalists’ murders across the world between September 1, 2009, and August 31, 2019, found that at least 16 cases of complete impunity were found in Pakistan. Pakistan has regularly featured on the Global Impunity Index since its inception in 2008 and ranks eight in the latest index out of 13 countries under purview.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan ranks 142 on the World Press Freedom Index 2019, out of 180 countries.

The military-mullah combine in Pakistan was the main reason for journalists falling prey to lethal violence as a result of their efforts to bring the truth to light. There are many instances of journalists being attacked for performing their professional duties. Prominent among these are the targeted attacks on prominent British-Pakistani journalist and activist, Gul Bukhari, known for his criticism of the military establishment, on June 5, 2018; Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent Pakistani women’s rights activist, attacked on April 24, 2015; and Hamid Mir of Geo TV, and well known political commentator, who survived a murderous assault on April 19, 2014. The latter two were attacked when they focused on the acute problems in Balochistan, where state agencies, particularly the ISI, and their non-state proxies were engaged in the execution and forced disappearances of Baloch people.

In 2011, the ISI was accused of abducting, torturing and killing Saleem Shahzad, a journalist working as the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online (Hong Kong) and Italian news agency Adnkronos (AKI). Shahzad disappeared in the evening of May 29, 2011, from Islamabad and his dead body was discovered on May 31, 2011, from a canal in the Mandi Bahauddin District of Punjab. His body bore marks of severe torture. Human Rights Watch researcher Ali Dayan Hasan claimed he had “credible information” that Shahzad was in the custody of ISI. Indeed, Shahzad’s friends and colleagues revealed that the ISI had warned Shahzad at least three times prior to his death. In October 2010, Shahzad was summoned to ISI headquarters the day after publishing a sensitive article on Afghan Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar’s capture.

Very recently, Cyril Almeida, a well-known journalist who extensively reported on the country’s civil-military nexus for the English-daily Dawn, resigned from the newspaper October 20, 2019. Almeida, who was serving as the assistant editor at Dawn, tweeted that he was ending his column and taking a “break from the media” while also indicating he may not return to journalism. Almeida had been facing the wrath of the Government and military for his columns.

The practice of bulldozing journalists is an old phenomenon in Pakistan, and there seems to be no end to this trend in near foreseeable future.

*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management


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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