No protection for media
By Huma Yusuf
The Sialkot lynching has by now become emblematic of the failure of the Pakistani state to serve and protect its citizens. The brutal images of mob justice may have left our television screens, but the nightmare continues: the prime accused SHO of the concerned Sialkot police station is said to have fled.
And the journalist who brought the incident to the world’s attention has been beaten by ‘unknown perpetrators’ and hospitalised. As a follow-up to the lynching, the attack on private TV channel reporter Hafiz Imran highlights the incompetence and callousness of the state and its law-enforcing agencies. There was no reason for Imran to have been left vulnerable. He had alerted the authorities that he had been receiving death threats since the incident was aired, and had approached Gujranwala and Sialkot police officials requesting security.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik had also ordered that Imran and other Sialkot-based journalists be provided security, and the Lahore High Court issued notices to the Punjab police seeking protection for Imran and the cameraman who assisted him.
Despite making all the right noises, the government and its security apparatus failed to protect him – and the lapse is telling. The thing is, there is a grain of truth to the state’s helpless protestations that it cannot be expected to provide failsafe security for thousands-strong religious processions that are the preferred target of suicide bombers. And though less convincing, one can appreciate the logistical challenges the government faces in arranging security at the many worship sites of religious minorities across the nation. One can even comprehend the complicity of low-ranking, poorly trained and thus powerless policemen in acts of corruption and violence.
But the government’s inability to protect one citizen who is at high risk for exposing an injustice is shocking. And the fact that the individual is a journalist makes it even worse because Imran’s fate will discourage others who have access to important evidence of crimes and injustices from going public.
Indeed, the lax attitude towards protecting Imran indicates that the government has not fully understood the extent to which the relationship between the state and the mainstream media should be symbiotic and cooperative. In these trying times of terrorist attacks and devastating floods, when the state’s resources are stretched thin, the media can serve as the ground-level eyes and ears of a government that is ill-served by corrupt law-enforcers and self-serving politicians.
The positive role that the media has played in recent years cannot be denied. In addition to raising the curtain on the Sialkot lynching (and thereby heightening awareness of the frequency and viciousness of mob violence in Pakistan), surreptitiously captured footage helped expose the horrors in Swat when the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi held sway. The flogging video was a game changer regarding Pakistan’s take on extremism. During the 2005 earthquake and this year’s floods, the media helped identify calamity-struck villages, point aid workers to neglected areas and uncover corruption, whether in the form of the black-market trade of relief supplies or the establishment of ‘fake’ relief camps.
Yet officials fail to see how the media can facilitate their responsibilities towards citizens. While Imran was hospitalised, federal minister Firdous Ashiq Awan accused him of hankering for “cheap publicity”. She is not alone in her criticism of reporters: at various times, members of the ruling PPP government have accused journalists of being Israeli agents, blocked the broadcasts of private TV channels and endorsed or drafted media regulatory laws to institutionalise censorship.
The relationship between a state and the mainstream media is necessarily tense, given that the media’s raison d’Ãªtre is to serve as a watchdog and oversee the state and its workings through a critical eye. But much news reporting helps a state function by drawing attention to issues, needs and emergent problems, thereby enabling the government to act on public grievances in a prompt manner. The problem in Pakistan is that the government is so threatened by the media’s watchdog function that it has yet to value the media’s eyes-and-ears function.
Moreover, by failing to protect its de facto ‘eyes and ears’ at the grassroots level, the government is undermining its own democratic project. After all, the freedom of the press is a mainstay of a genuine democracy. And where journalists can be intimidated, harassed and attacked, the press cannot be described as free. The consistently poor physical safety of journalists is a major reason why Pakistan ranked 159th on a list of 175 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2009. On hearing of the attack against Imran, Punjab Law Minister Raja Sanaullah exhorted that media freedom must be prioritised. One wonders if he realises that it means the journalists who work for the media should be empowered, enabled and protected?
It is high time that this government re-evaluated the worthiness of journalists and the value of their work. Not only because cooperating with the media can help make the state more informed and efficient, but also because the definition of ‘journalists’ is expanding to include many Pakistani citizens.
In this era of mobile phones and the Internet, many people moonlight as citizen journalists: during the floods, for example, connected Pakistanis from Charsadda to Sukkur posted images, videos, maps and live updates from flood-affected areas using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Crowdmap. As more Pakistanis gain access to these new media tools, there will be an increasing number of cases in which both professional and citizen journalists will have access to sensitive information, and need protection from those who are implicated by it. Without developing a culture of respect for journalism and information dissemination, this government threatens to indirectly muffle the voice of the nation.