Life is cheap in Pakistan — for journalists
By Irfan Ashraf
The writer is a doctoral fellow at Southern Illinois University in the US
For the last three years in a row, Pakistan has been declared one of the most dangerous countries in the world for working journalists. Thirteen journalists were killed in different incidents in 2012. And 2013, not even two months old, has already been stained with the blood of three more journalists, who lost their lives in a horrendous explosion in Quetta (in which around 90 people lost their lives).
Reflecting on this dangerous state of affairs, every year, global rights organisations bemoan the consequences of being a journalist and reporting in Pakistan. The outcome is quite productive at least in one obvious way, and that is that international donors do not feel any hesitation in providing funds for the capacity-building of journalists in Pakistan. Despite this generosity, however, the graph of violence against journalists remains on the rise.
At the national level, the burgeoning media system has so far remained insensitive to this issue. Ever since the killing of the tribal journalist, Hayatullah Khan, in a terror-related incident in 2006, reaction from the mainstream media has remained symbolic. Violence against marginalised journalists is covered no different from the coverage of other fateful incidents of terror, which so far, has helped the media elite and privileged journalist bodies to bury the underlying debate in the rituals of meaningless media reports and protest demonstrations.
Does this mean that the killing of journalists is no different than that of civilians in terror-related attacks? Or do we need to seriously revisit the issue with a different perspective? Understandably, the number of civilian lives that acts of terror consume is far greater than the magnitude of violence reporters suffer in the militancy-hit areas. This, however, does not make the issue any less important. If civilians’ deaths are the collateral baggage largely caused by the fight between the militants and security forces, victimisation of journalists is the direct outcome of dismantling dissident voices.
More than threatening, the matter is confusing. Some experts believe that the US intervention in Afghanistan (in 2001) has fuelled terrorism in Pakistan, which coincided with the wave of media liberalisation in 2002. Therefore, violence against journalists would become lower once US forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. This optimism hardly seems to make sense if we look into the patterns of violence in totality. In fact, the current wave of intimidation, torture and death of journalists is part of a structural violence that is hardly going to end without inviting grassroots measures from the marginalised journalist community.
For example, initially, the Taliban operating in the troubled areas of the north-west avoided claiming responsibility for killing journalists. Therefore, the law-enforcing agencies counted such cases as terrorism related, in order to avoid the fatigue of investigation. This official gloss-over encouraged local criminal groups to browbeat journalists, which increased direct crime against reporters. In a few incidents, some criminal elements in Peshawar adopted the Taliban’s tactic of writing intimidating letters to journalists. By January 2012, the issue became less confusing after a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibly for the killing of tribal journalist Mukarram Khan.
If a lack of investigation encourages direct crime against journalists, the impunity with which the security agencies operate turns this crime into structural violence. Unlike the Taliban, the intelligence agencies have put in place a system in which journalists seem to be causing their own death by dissenting from the norm. Therefore, the consistent pattern of dumping journalists’ body bags along the roadside in Balochistan is a consequence of certain laid-out conditions, which compel state agencies to eliminate dissenting voices. Similarly, the intimidation of dissident journalists in the tribal belt and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is considered the outcome of conditions that are the consequence of militancy and has nothing to do with the ruthless official approach to suppress journalists.
While the official pattern of violence against dissident journalists is perfectly understandable, if not pardonable, what is most worrying is the transformation of direct crime and structural violence into the most threatening form of cultural violence. Ruthless media routines, which thrive on deprivation and exploitation, are the major manifestation of cultural violence against journalists. Death for journalists comes on a much larger scale in Pakistan. The urban nature of journalism prevents the resourceful mainstream media from feeling the pain that is experienced by the marginalised, underpaid reporters, who cover militancy in the peripheral conflict zone of the tribal belt and Balochistan. What with long hours, deadline pressures and no safety measures, reporters covering conflict are victims of nerve-wracking working conditions.
No less threatening is the issue of representation for the marginalised journalists. Every year, the elite media channels repeat the ritual of inviting celebrity talk show hosts (in Pakistan, current affairs hosts consider themselves journalists) to discuss the plight of reporters in conflict zones. No bigger disservice could be done to journalism than the way such programmes are conducted. In their evasive and superficial arguments, the talk show hosts briefly discuss the role of intelligence agencies in threatening journalists. But structural violence caused by media routines hardly gets a mention at all. This job is meticulously crafted by disassociating the dangerous working routines of journalists from the culture of violence in the country’s troubled areas. In other words, violence against journalists is covered as a sporadic terror activity like any other bomb blast, which has nothing to do with the working conditions available to journalists.
Therefore, the security apparatus, the Taliban and the urban media system are seemingly mutually exclusive forces. However, they all treat journalists in the same ruthless way, which has normalised violence against journalists serving in the less privileged north-west and Balochistan. Improvement is possible if the journalist community in the conflict-hit areas could utilise its collective agency at the press club level and follow a united agenda to take up the issue of security at all appropriate forums including the Supreme Court.