Press freedom under threat
Attacks on the press and media seem to have increased in recent months and this is a most disturbing and troubling development. The first incident that comes to mind — and probably the most tragic — is the death of FATA-based journalist Hayatullah Khan who went missing for over six months in December last year only to turn up dead. Reports surrounding his death, which were in any case sketchy, suggested that he was trying to run away from his captors but couldn’t make it back alive and his body was found with bullet wounds. Speculation had first centred on the Taliban and then the Americans but both publicly denied that they had anything to do with Hayatullah. His family later alleged — quite a few times — that Hayatullah had been picked up by the intelligence agencies because he had taken pictures that had embarrassed the government by contradicting its denial that the death of a senior suspected Al Qaeda operative in FATA had not been caused by a missile fired from a US drone. Then came the case of reporter Mukesh Ropeta and his cameraman who were both detained after allegedly making tapes of Shahbaz airbase in northern Sindh which was being used by allied forces. The revelation that the two had been detained and the ensuing outcry this caused helped garner their release.
Now in the last couple of weeks, there have been several further unpleasant incidents all involving journalists. One of these goes well beyond the unpleasant to downright criminal and concerns the death of a reporter in Dera Ismail Khan on Sept. 15 (police however claimed later that this could have been a sectarian attack as well). Then came the assault of a respected trade unionist and senior journalist in Islamabad at the hands of the guards of the federal labour minister. After that the home of this newspaper’s crime reporter in Rawalpindi was fired upon and then a case of murder was registered against him. The reporter says that he is being victimised for writing against a police official whom he says is widely perceived as being corrupt. The list goes on: a journalist working with a Karachi-based English daily early last week went missing only to reappear on Saturday. And there is also the case of a TV channel which the Punjab government ordered blacked out for four days — something that only PEMRA, if at all, is competent to do.
Journalists who practice their trade in Pakistan know that there are certain occupational hazards that they must deal with, especially if they try and cover issues deemed to be sensitive by governments and the establishment, such as matters related to the military, and Pakistan’s bilateral ties with certain key countries or issues that relate to certain very important people. As if the state-sponsored harassment weren’t enough, they must also contend with a host of private mafias — the builders’ mafia, the transport mafia, the criminal mafia, the feudal mafia, the business mafia and so on — and those who work in the country’s districts are particularly vulnerable. No one is saying that there shouldn’t be reasonable curbs on the press — these are found practically everywhere — even in the most progressive and democratic of nations. However, what sets us apart is the extra-legal nature of the curbs and restrictions imposed on journalists. Harassment and victimisation is done with the deliberate intention to intimidate them so that they back off and think twice about writing something. And since the threat is made in an extra-legal manner, what often happens is that courts fail to come to the aid of the victim of harassment. In some cases, depending on where the threat emanates, even the civil government is sometimes helpless. The only way forward is for governments to understand that journalists have a role to play in society and that it only serves to undermine a government’s standing and credibility if they are subjected to extra-legal intimidation. If there are complaints there are always various legal options that can and should be pursued.
Source: The News