Pakistan’s media under siege

By Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan Researcher at Amnesty International

At least 34 Pakistani journalists have been killed because of their reporting since democracy was restored in 2008. In only one case have those responsible been brought to justice. This year alone five journalists have been killed and dozens more have received death threats, been abducted and tortured, or survived assassination attempts.

Raza Rumi is one of those attacked. A noted commentator on human rights issues, he contacted Amnesty International on March 27 about a Taliban hit-list bearing his name. “I’m not sure if it’s real or just an attempt to silence me,” he said, “but I’m very concerned.”

The next day, two gunmen opened fire on Rumi’s car as he drove home from his weekly television show in Lahore. In the hail of bullets, he took cover in the back and miraculously escaped with only minor injuries. His driver Muhammad Hussain was killed and his bodyguard Anwar Hussain was left paralyzed.

Pakistan’s media is being squeezed by competing state and non-state political actors. As Amnesty International highlights in a new report released today, journalists across the country live with the daily threat of harassment, abductions, torture or killings. Those covering sensitive national security and human rights issues are particularly at risk from the intelligence agencies, political parties, and armed groups like the Taliban.

Attacks on the media are not new in Pakistan. But events over the past few weeks have brought the crisis in the country’s journalism into stark focus. On April 19, gunmen tried to assassinate Hamid Mir, a popular news anchor with the largest private broadcaster GeoTV. The station accused the feared military spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being behind Mir’s shooting.

ISI has denied any involvement, and the government in turn has made moves to close down GeoTV. The ongoing standoff is a chilling reminder of the ever-present threat of censorship that hangs over media enterprises as well as individual journalists.

GeoTV’s allegations against the ISI must be taken seriously and only a thorough, independent and impartial investigation will reveal Hamid Mir’s assailants. Dozens of other journalists have also contacted Amnesty International to register claims of harassment and abuse they blame on Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence service. Most refused to go public about their ordeals out of fear for their lives and their loved ones.

Our research reveals a clear pattern of the ISI’s harassment of journalists, beginning with threatening phone calls from intelligence agents. Those who persist with reporting on sensitive topics such as alleged links between the military and the Taliban eventually face harassment, abduction, torture and other ill-treatment. Some are even killed. In isolation these cases may seem like any other, but together the extensive testimony we collected reveals a methodical approach and intimate knowledge of the targets, and no part of the country is safe for the victim. The military denies these claims, but only an independent and impartial investigation of the ISI can determine the truth

Another serious problem is the extent to which powerful political actors pressure journalists for favorable coverage. In the volatile political climate of Pakistan’s business hub Karachi, journalists live under the constant threat of abuse by the Pakistani Taliban, sectarian religious groups and political parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). In order to halt negative coverage, such groups have done everything from cutting broadcast cables to inciting violence or killing journalists.

The Taliban and al Qaeda-linked groups are a law unto themselves in the Tribal Areas. One reporter recounted how he was held and tortured by an al Qaeda-linked group for two months because he was suspected of spying for the U.S. drone program. He maintained his innocence during a painful daily ritual of torture and he was eventually released. One of his torturers later simply explained: “Sorry, we made a mistake.”

Only a few of the 74 cases investigated by Amnesty International have led to prosecutions, with convictions in two cases. This failure has sent the signal that powerful actors are free to stifle the media through violence. That in turn has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the society’s ability to openly discuss social and political issues, as journalists increasingly self-censor to avoid the risk of abuse.

Only immediate steps to address this impunity can stem the tide of abuses. The Pakistan government must start by ensuring that the perpetrators in all cases, including the high-profile assassination attempts on Hamid Mir and Raza Rumi, are brought to justice regardless of their affiliations.

The media enterprises themselves must also provide adequate training, support and assistance to their staff and not undermine the efforts of rival outlets to seek justice for their journalists. Without these urgent steps, there is a very serious risk that more of Pakistan’s journalists will be intimidated into silence.

Note: This blog originally appeared as an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal