Crimes against journalists
IT started innocently enough with a remark uttered in all seriousness by a guest at a recent dinner party. He wanted to know why a certain columnist who writes for this paper is opposed to the establishment of a proper democracy in this country, and why he never writes against the army.
It was politely pointed out that it is an unwritten convention in the Fourth Estate that newspaper columnists do not comment on the works and views of other columnists. They leave that to the readers. It is also one of the canons of journalism that every writer has a right to his opinion, and other writers have to respect a particular point of view, however unpopular it might subsequently prove to be.
That’s not to say that all opinions are relative and have equal validity. Some columnists have an edge over others – and that’s due to consistency, and not how they review a particular policy by government or a particular blunder by a politician.
Of course, every correspondent loves those letters to the editor which start off with the words … “so and so is a cultural god”, or Â“I’ve named the new restaurant in my hotel after him.Â” Newspaper columnists are, after all human. But readers often forget that columnists are not cultural bookies, or tipsters trying to pick winners, or second-guessing an audience. They express an opinion based on experience.
A case in point is this writer’s epistle on ‘Scams for all seasons,’ written strictly in the public interest which ruffled quite a few feathers in the corridors of power. It didn’t evoke any reactions among the letter writers who probably agreed with the ground covered by the article. But it did induce angry retorts from a junior policymaker in Islamabad and a letter from a minister who was at least decent enough to understand and appreciate the point of criticism, and that there was no malice in my analysis.
Another case in point is the Dawn columnist earlier referred to, who during the last 20 years, has been quite consistent in his attacks on corruption in high places; government officials caught with their fingers in the national till; and the unscrupulous builders who, motivated by avarice, have repeatedly disregarded and flaunted local building laws in their attempts to disfigure the landscape.
If it hadn’t been for his one-man crusade against these builders and their capricious and whimsical plans, attempting to encroach upon pavements and roads, and endeavouring to swallow up leafy parks and amenity plots earmarked for schools and hospitals, the city would have looked a lot worse than it does today.
Recently, he has been criticised in the letters column for his persistent refusal to write against the President or alleged misdemeanours committed by members of the armed forces – and for being provided a police escort at the taxpayer’s expense.
If this writer prefers enlightened despotism to democracy, a theme in which he is increasingly finding himself in a distinct minority in this country, it is his point of view, and one should leave it at that. But it is the bit about being provided a police escort at the public’s expense that has irked a few letter writers. It does convey a wholly erroneous impression about his relationship with the establishment, which one is sure he would be anxious to correct.
One letter writer pointed out that police protection should be extended also to other journalists who are outspoken in their criticism and whose assignments often expose them to danger from an assortment of enemies. If this had been done in the recent past perhaps those unfortunate seven journalists who were killed in the line of duty between 2002 and 2006 might have been alive today, and those other 20 journalists who had been assaulted or improperly detained, might have been left alone.
On February 21, 2002 US government officials confirmed that Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal had been killed by his captors. According to The Journal, Pearl had been reporting on would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, who sought to blow up an aeroplane during a transatlantic flight.
On October 20, 2002, Shahid Soomro, a correspondent for the Sindhi-language newspaper Kawish, was assassinated in the town of Kandhkot, apparently in reprisal for his reporting on abuses committed during general elections held on October 10. His brother filed a case with police identifying three assailants, all members of a powerful local family.
On January 21, 2003, Fazal Wahab, a freelance writer, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen while he was sitting in a roadside shop in Manglawar Bazaar, near the resort town of Mingora in northwestern Pakistan. His colleagues believe that he was targeted for his work. Wahab had published several books in Urdu and in Pashto that criticised local religious leaders and Islamic militant organisations.
On January 29, 2004, Sajid Tanoli, a reporter with the regional Urdu-language daily Shumal, was killed in the town of Mansehra in Pakistan’s Frontier province. Tanoli was stopped on a highway, dragged from his car and shot several times, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported. Tanoli had written critically about the head of the local government, including a story three days before the slaying that described an allegedly illegal liquor business run by a politician.
On February 7, 2005, gunmen in the capital of the remote South Waziristan tribal area fatally shot Amir Nawab, a freelance cameraman for Associated Press Television News who doubled as reporter for the Frontier Post newspaper, and Allah Noor, who was working for the Peshawar – based Khyber TV. The journalists were on their way back from the town of Sararogha, where they were covering the surrender of suspected tribal militant Baitullah Mehsud. An unknown group calling itself ‘Sipah-i-Islam’ took responsibility for the killings in a letter faxed to newspapers. It accused some journalists of “working for Christians” and of “being used as tools in negative propaganda … against the Muslim Mujahideen.”
On May 29, 2006, Munir Ahmed Sangi, a cameraman for the Sindhi-language KTN, was shot while covering a gunfight between members of the Unar and Abro tribes in Larkana. Police said Sangi was killed in the crossfire, although some colleagues believe he may have been deliberately targeted for the station’s reporting on a jirga, or tribal council, held by leaders of the Unar tribe, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
On June 16, 2006, the body of Hayatullh Khan, a freelance journalist, was found by villagers in North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, from which he was abducted on December 5, 2005. He disappeared after reporting that an Al-Qaeda commander had been killed by a US missile, contradicting official Pakistani accounts of the death. Local government officials and family members told journalists that Khan had been shot in the back of the head, probably on June 15, and was in handcuffs.
In an environment of gross intolerance journalists are often threatened by the groups they cover and fear retribution from the government, including illegal detentions and harassment. Many journalists also speak of the lack of support from the news organisations for which they work, saying the outlets are frequently reluctant to confront the government when their reporters are arrested or detained.
While Pakistan’s press is vibrant and growing, it continues to face escalating threats. The Committee to Protect Journalists proposed that the government should take the following steps to enhance the confidence of Pakistani journalists and the international community in the government’s commitment to protect press freedom.
There should be public recognition by the government that a crisis exists that threatens the lives of working journalists and the flow of accurate information to the Pakistani people. A special unit in the interior ministry to deal with crimes against journalists should be created and the reports of this investigative unit reflecting its work on each case should be published.
Public news conferences should be convened within a week of the publication of each report so that unit officials can address questions about the investigations. The delegation also recommended the creation of parallel structures in tribal territories to track crimes against journalists in those areas. If these measures are introduced they will certainly improve the lot of the working journalist.