Friday, September 16, 2011

Censorship in Pakistan January- September 2011 Reporters Without Borders

In March of this year, RWB reported that in the past thirteen months, fourteen journalists had been killed in Pakistan. This made Pakistan one of the world’s deadliest countries for media- related deaths in 2010, and attributed to their ranking of 151st out of 178 countries in last year’s Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index. In line with this, nine journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2011; a figure which does not seem to bear any trace of improvement for the future of journalism in Pakistan. In addition to being badly paid, journalists in Pakistan have to negotiate their way around many sensitive issues; the border with Afghanistan, terrorism, the conflict with India, the age-old tribal situation in the North Western provinces, and the political history of the country, not to mention the violent and corrupt methods adopted by the police forces.

Reporters without Borders (RWB) seek to highlight the climate of fear and the extent of censorship that has been imposed as a result of acts of intimidation, governmental inadequacy and local corruption. The suspected ‘target killing’ of Wali Khan Babar, a reporter for GEO TV, on January 13th in Karachi, followed his coverage of a controversial police investigation and led to calls for a report from the authorities into the surroundings of his death. Consequently, on April 7th, Sindh police announced that they had identified four suspects in connection with his ‘pre- meditated murder’ (the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), all of whom had allegedly confessed. Whilst in the process of investigating Wali Babar’s murder, two police officers in connection with the case were also murdered, as well as the relative of another officer, and an informer. Evidently, the repercussions of this such investigation go some way to explaining why there are so very few in- depth investigations over suspicious so- called ‘target killings’ in Pakistan. Even after the President and other prominent figures condemned Babar’s killing, journalists organised widespread protests nationwide, and the Provincial Assembly ordered a judicial inquiry, no one was convicted. This particular case emphasises the idea that those who commit crimes against reporters in Pakistan are able to continue to do so with impunity.

Similar to this is the case of Syed Salaam Shahzad’s murder, an Asia Times Online correspondent. Based in Islamabad, he reportedly chose to cover many sensitive subjects, including his recent exposure of the close ties between Islamist militants and the Pakistani army. He was found dead in his car, two hundred kilometres from his home, on May 30th, having been missing for two days. The government have since been accused of showing little interest in his case and Reporters without Borders has received information detailing that many of Shahzad’s personal sources were Islamic extremists, which has contributed to him being branded a ‘secret agent’ for organisations including Al Qaeda in connection with this. At the end of the July, it came to light that the investigation into Shahzad’s murder had already ended, proving fruitless. The failure to convict anyone for such a heinous crime can be attributed in part to the ‘lack of coordination’ between police forces of different regions. The fact that Shahzad’s body was discovered many miles from his place of residence gave both sets of authorities the opportunity to defer responsibility for the investigation, and consequently led to a situation whereby no one was investigating anything. In the Punjab region, Karachi province and the Baluchistan province, where bribery, corruption and violence are verging on institutionalised, the prospect of a police force willingly embarking on judicial proceedings are relatively slim, especially when the potential risks for all those associated with the trial are taken into account.

In the months following the brutal murder of Syed Shahzad, the Committee to Protect Journalists report significant acceleration in the number of journalists seeking their assistance. They have been able to process requests for help in the cases of sixteen journalists in the past nine months and are also aware of at least nine others who have received death threats. Whilst it is vital that endangered journalists continue to reach out for help, the Committee spoke of the limited options that were available to them, in terms of ensuring protection. These included trying to make their plight more public, alerting local police, and even temporarily relocating to another part of Pakistan. Clearly, these options all carry risks in themselves, and for an accomplished journalist, relocating to another country entirely is sometimes the safest, and most feasible option. In the complete absence of any government intervention, journalists have to take measures to protect themselves and their families- this is likely to have a detrimental effect on Pakistani press freedoms in the long run. The CPJ believes that the corruption, poverty and fear that journalists in Pakistan have to overcome has the potential to create an exodus of the media ‘intelligentsia’ abroad, leaving in its place a limited, and largely ineffectual media base, that will leave the perpetuators of mass criminal activity wholly unchecked.

In fact, the idea that corruption and criminal activity are institutionalised is exemplified by the attempted shooting of Talat Hussain and Haider Ali of the Dawn News TV Channel on 4th February, who had been investigating the social impact of recent flooding in Thatta, Sindh province. Reporters without Borders accused local officials of ‘shielding professional killers’, after they failed to take any further appropriate action and it emerged that the suspected gunmen were on the payroll of the former advisor to the province’s chief minister. The fact that the dealings of local officials are so entwined with the actions of criminals, combined with the government’s ineptitude at even approaching justice for journalists, explains why there are so few convictions, and subsequently why many reporters have preferred to opt for a form of self- censorship. For example, on the 1st August, Malik Munawar, a Channel 5 reporter, refused to talk to Reporters without Borders about any detail of his kidnapping on the 21st July, for fear of reprisal. It is this climate of fear that so pushes credible journalists towards self- censorship.

Officials too are trying to impose censorship on the content of broadcasts. The violence against the Express News TV cameraman, Zahid Hussein, on March 4th demonstrates the lengths that officials are prepared to go in order to avoid exposing their own criminal activity. Hussein was the first reporter on the scene of a violent crackdown in Peshawar, and in attempting to film police brutality towards a protestor, he himself became the victim of police assault and his film camera was also confiscated. An apology was later given to Hussein, but his film evidence was not returned. On the 14th March, officials blamed a ‘stray bullet’ for the shooting of Dunya News TV cameraman Fayyaz in spite of the fact that there were no shooting incidents nearby, and that he had previously been publicly critical of a local party member called Nawaz. It is the failure of local officials to take action against such crimes that allows the perpetuators to, quite literally, get away with murder.

Indeed, in recent months, not only have officials been failing to find those responsible for atrocities committed against journalists, but Reporters without Borders reports that of three violent attacks in August, police were responsible for two. On the 19th, a Samaa TV bureau chief Shaukat Khattak, cameraman Imran Khan and satellite- operator Anwar Khan were assaulted and beaten whilst they interviewed victims in the aftermath of a suicide bombing in the Tribal Area, and on the 6th, the Headquarters of the Urdu language daily Mashriq was raided - both by police. Whilst Reporters without Borders continues to provide accounts of the killing, kidnapping and assault of journalists in Pakistan, it seems clear that the level of police violence in the country is also becoming increasingly worrying. As well as the increasing physical danger that journalists face whilst reporting in Pakistan, they now also have to reckon with a largely ineffectual, corrupt, and even criminal police force.

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