Killing fields: Journalists under fire
FOR years now, Pakistan has been considered amongst the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. The impunity factor is used to demonstrate the depth of the problem: the state’s lack of interest in pursuing cases of journalists being murdered or harassed. This is apparent through just the bald facts: more than 20 journalists have been murdered in reprisal for their work over the past decade but not even one case has been solved. Why this is the case is fairly well recognised, even if challenging to address. Between the various forces that hold sway in the country — from the state and political parties to the security establishment, as well as the militant/extremist network and crime rings — there are linkages at play and there exists a web of shifting alliances. This means that this range of actors can and do, in different combinations, look away or collude to bury the cases of journalists being targeted, in order to suppress information in an otherwise vibrant media landscape.
If much of this was speculation earlier, it has come closer to substantiation with a special report published recently by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Roots of Impunity: Pakistan’s endangered press and the perilous web of militancy, security and politics. With the investigation using the prism of the killings of two journalists in particular — Wali Khan Babar in Karachi in January 2011 and Mukarram Khan Aatif in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa a year later — the report illustrates in a chilling fashion “the culture of manipulation, intimidation, and retribution that has led to this killing spree [of journalists]”. Members of this profession are targeted by any quarter that feels that too much information, or information they consider ‘wrong’ is being reported, with the persecutors even being affiliated with political parties, state-sponsored agencies and the military establishment.
The problems facing Pakistan are vast. Resolving them requires “a government willing to go head-to-head with the all-powerful security forces. By demanding accountability from the government, journalists can play one of the most important roles”, notes the report. Does the state have the will to do what it can to ensure that journalists are in a position to operate without fear? Given the apathy towards cases involving journalists’ deaths as well as the indications that state-sponsored agencies are involved in the harassment, it would appear not. Unless this pattern changes, there is danger that those in the media — particularly in conflict-hit areas — will have to work with so much circumspection as to render themselves impotent.