Journalists working in face of ever increasing threats
KARACHI: Media freedom remains a contentious issue in Pakistan as journalists, particularly those working in Fata, NWFP and Balochistan, discharge their professional responsibilities under increasing threats to their lives and liberty.
Deaths and kidnappings of journalists, governmental clampdowns on electronic media and transgressions against news organisations’ freedom to operate contributed towards Pakistan being ranked 152 out of 169 on the Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2007, published by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF). Pakistan was rated below Zimbabwe (149), Saudi Arabia (148) and Afghanistan (142).
On recent occasions the state has intervened to clamp down on the press and curtail the rights of individuals and organisations connected with the media.
The past year has seen immense pressure levied on the media, ratcheted up in wake of the Nov 3 declaration of emergency rule. The images of riot police roughing up staff inside the Islamabad offices of the Jang Group Publications on March 16 constitute an indictment on the state of media freedom in Pakistan, as does the fact that journalists were assaulted by plainclothesmen and security personnel as they covered Mian Nawaz Sharif’s return on Sept 10. Similarly disturbing was the formal complaint filed by police against 200-odd journalists after members of the press demonstrated against a presidential ordinance giving the government broadened powers to halt broadcasters’ transmissions, close offices, seize equipment and revoke licences. The situation deteriorated significantly after Nov 3.
In an April 17 open letter to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, RSF identified areas threatening press freedom in Pakistan and recommended that the operational methods of Pemra, currently run by former police officers, be reformed and terrestrial broadcast licences be granted to independent television stations.
Noting that at least 30 journalists were seriously injured in 2007 and more than 120 arrested, the letter asked that police, army and intelligence personnel be trained on the role played by the media in order to avoid further violence against journalists. It further called for protection for news media threatened by terrorist groups.
The first quarter of 2008 has seen two journalists kidnapped in Balochistan, while two others who went missing in the province last year remain untraced.
Hameed Baloch, a reporter for Azadi, was kidnapped on March 3 from Taftan and is still missing. His colleague Khalil Khosa was released on March 8 after having been kidnapped from Naseerabad on Feb 29. RSF reported Khosa as saying that he was told by his kidnappers “not to practise this kind of journalism again.” Azadi reporter Javed Lehri has been missing since Nov 30 while Riaz Mengal of Khuzdar’s Intikhab has been missing since Oct 4.
In some cases, the killings or abductions are attributable to militant groups that strike with impunity in the absence of official support for targeted mediamen, such as Akhbar-e-Jahan columnist Chishti Mujahid. He was shot dead in Quetta on Feb 9; the Baloch Liberation Army claimed responsibility saying that he had been “against the Baloch cause”.
Killed in the line of duty
Amongst the journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty in Pakistan’s troubled north was Nation correspondent Sirajuddin, who was killed in a suicide bombing in Mingora on Feb 29.
Last year the vice-president of the Tribal Union of Journalists, Noor Hakim Khan, was killed in a roadside bombing in Bajaur Agency on June 2, while freelance photographer Mehboob Khan died in a suicide attack in April.
Other parts of the country proved no less dangerous: ARY One World’s Mohammed Arif died in the Oct 18 Karsaz blasts, while Javed Khan, a cameraman for DM Digital TV, was killed in crossfire at Lal Masjid on July 3.
Official support may be gauged from the fact that Rehmat Shah Afridi, former editor of the Frontier Post, remains in jail. Munir Mengal of the Baloch Voice television station was freed in February after having been held for two years by law-enforcement agencies. He recently told the BBC World Service that “Intelligence agencies continue to follow me wherever I go. I am afraid for my life. They prevent me from speaking and writing.”
The report of the investigation conducted by Justice Mohammed Raza Khan into the December 2005 kidnapping and June 2006 killing of journalist Hayatullah Khan has not yet been released, although the report was completed in August 2006.
The new government must not only refrain from curtailing the independence of press organisations but also protect the rights of journalists. Until then, claims for media freedom will remain hollow.