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Negotiating the state, military and society’s norms makes life—and journalism—tough for Pakistani media

Journalists must reckon with a volatile atmosphere of intimidation even in major cities, such as this crew reporting on the murder of the politician Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, in 2011. farooq naeem / afp / getty images
01 December, 2015

On 11 November 2015, Pakistan’s most prominent English newspaper, Dawn, ran a front-page story on the military’s criticism of the government for its apparent lack of progress on a counter-terrorism plan. The story typified the Pakistani armed forces’ ability to shake up the political structure by throwing their weight around. On the last page, another story appeared, just as characteristic of how the state functions. It reported that a journalist, Mohammad Afzal Mughal, was detained by a law-enforcement agency from his home in Quetta, Balochistan, at 2.30 am. He was questioned by several officials, and then dropped off near his house.

Journalists in Pakistan have to navigate these two norms: they must report on and engage with the Pakistani military, but the state inevitably controls the message. Over the past few years, reporters across the country have been detained, threatened, harassed, and warned off doing their jobs by functionaries of the state, as well as militant groups. Dozens have been killed, including the senior Urdu-language journalist Zaman Mehsud, who was shot dead on 3 November this year, in an attack for which the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. The blame for violence against journalists is often levied at Pakistan’s militant groups and its intelligence agencies, although the military denies the latter allegations.

The English-language press in Pakistan was never free, but it is increasingly driven by self-censorship and self-preservation. Newsrooms have an unofficial list of taboo subjects that are off limits, due to the financial interests of media owners. These subjects are nonetheless well known: the military and its financial interests, enforced disappearances, human rights in Balochistan and the tribal areas, powerful real-estate developers, or major corporate advertisers. I’ve seen editors stand by reporters, often at great risk, on stories involving these subjects. But I’ve also seen editors go through the most innocuous of copy, removing references that might cause offence, dropping stories entirely, rewriting them to fit a certain slant, or just publishing press releases in lieu of reportage. I have seen original reporting replaced by conspiracy-heavy stories planted in English newspapers by government functionaries. These stories are often driven by geopolitical agendas, and usually accuse Indian intelligence of some nefarious plot.

Planted stories were once easy to spot because of how they diverged from a newspaper’s established stance. But reportage in Pakistan has also begun to resemble these inserts, pumped full of conjecture and hyper-nationalism. This shift has ramped up dramatically over the last year, in the wake of the grisly militant attack on the Army Public School, in Peshawar. Almost 150 students and staff were killed, and Pakistan’s government and military vowed revenge. The ensuing national security campaign, with the highly visible army chief Raheel Sharif at the helm, involved military operations and the reinstatement of the death penalty. But it also enforced an aggressive sense of jingoism in society, politics and the press, propelling the army’s popularity to cult status. General Sharif’s image is an almost-daily fixture on some front pages, and reportage is heavily skewed towards the military.

Pakistan’s media groups have largely co-opted the army’s line—either willingly, or out of self-preservation—even though this doesn’t allow for journalists to operate freely. In August, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued a revised code of conduct that bars television channels from real-time reporting of security operations, stating that they can only broadcast information as allowed by the relevant security agency. The code bans content that “contains aspersions” against the judiciary or military, or is against “Islamic values.”

Though the number of journalists killed in Pakistan has decreased since last year, when 14 were murdered, the profession remains deadly. Three journalists, including a satellite-van engineer, were killed in 2015. Risks run rife for media workers who operate in conflict zones and regions such as Balochistan and the tribal areas, where conflicting groups—the state and militants—force journalists to report their versions of the story. In Balochistan, as the journalist Shahzada Zulfiqar told Dawn last month, “Most of us reporters cannot write reports the way they happen, can’t investigate openly, so what we do end up writing is very much dependent on the dictation that comes from the three sides: militants, separatists and security agencies.”

Although their everyday work is fraught with danger, these journalists remain largely ignored in the conversation about journalism occurring in Pakistan’s major cities. Journalists in Pakistan are bitterly divided by region, ethnicity, and political or social differences. The ignorance in mainstream Pakistani society about life outside the major cities, for example, has permeated down to journalism. Balochistan, the tribal areas, and the rural districts of Sindh are treated like faraway places. If journalists get any attention at all, it is based on the status of their publication in the media hierarchy, and the influence of their publisher.

Many journalists have horrendous stories to tell. I recently met a former colleague, Waseem Mughal, who works as a cameraman. Over the years, he’s been assaulted while on assignment, and was once travelling in a news van that came under fire, after he and his team had finished a report on violence in Karachi. He showed me his latest scar, described being shot in crossfire while covering a raid by paramilitary troops on the offices of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement party, or MQM, and sloped off to his next assignment.

Once, at a literature festival in Mumbai, I was asked why I, as a Pakistani journalist, hadn’t yet been harmed yet. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer, other than by offing myself publicly, but the reality is that I am able to make choices about what I cover. I would rather not cover a story than write a compromised, self-censored version of it. This is a luxury that staff reporters and other journalists often do not have.

Last year, I met the editor of a Sindhi newspaper that is an unknown entity outside the circle of Sindhi journalism. His staff routinely gets messages ranging from blasphemy accusations to threats for publishing incriminating photographs. He once received a message meant to be advance notice of his own death: “You drive home on a motorcycle. It’s not that difficult to run it over and make it look like an accident.”

He told me the story as I drank a cup of tea in his office’s bare-bones conference room. It always amazes me how normal these conversations are. Virtually all interviews in Pakistan end up being about who is being threatened and why. We talked about a story I’d wanted to do for a while on a human-rights crisis brewing in Sindh province. Despite the threats he has received, and although he and I had only met a couple of times, he offered to help. Despite his encouragement, I never did that story, and I never will, because my sense of self-preservation selfishly outweighs my desire to tell a story that deserves to be told. “At least try and we’ll see what happens,” he said. The truth is that I don’t want to see what happens.

Pakistan’s myriad journalist unions are largely ineffective. Their strategy to recruit members largely centres on getting them a flat in a government-run housing scheme. Unions protest attacks on journalists, but they seem just as likely to abet threats or bar free speech, and they do not always maintain the appearance of independence. In 2010, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists supported the country’s ban on Facebook. Union leaders have often courted politicians, including from the MQM, which was implicated in the murder of the journalist Wali Babar in 2011. (The party strongly denies allegations of its being involved in the murder.) In 2013, the governor of Sindh province—also from MQM—announced millions of rupees in funding for the Karachi Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

Working as a journalist in Pakistan is not an easy task, regardless of beat, position or organisation. The culture of newsrooms is not nurturing. Discrimination based on religious beliefs and gender is rife. Shia reporters and newsroom bosses, for example, are routinely spoken of in derogatory terms, and accused of bias. Women are harassed and shut out of newsrooms’ old-boys networks.

But these facts haven’t expanded the conversation on the safety of journalists. Instead, they are perversely deployed in arguments against them. This line of whataboutery—to use the colloquial term—is often employed: “Journalists may get threats, but look at their organisation’s policies, and how unethical they are, and they must be biased because of their gender or sect.”

The shortcoming of this vein of questioning is that news organisations do not threaten or kill their staff. It is government officials, political and religious activists, and militants, who have been accused of and implicated in, or owned up to, threatening and killing reporters. Murder is easy and cheap, and helps spread fear among journalists. But there is also rarely widespread outrage over the murder of a journalist, because society at large does not see the value of their work.

Journalism is, by and large, reviled in Pakistan. For decades, politicians and military leaders have been dismissive of the importance of free speech. It is quite common to hear journalists being talked about—on the streets and online—as “paid agents” working for foreign spy services or political parties. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, a former head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, told a judicial commission investigating the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden that journalists were “heavily bribed with money, women and alcohol” to report against the ISI, and that the media was “practically bought up.”

I’ve heard the same kind of invective among the public, in settings ranging from social events to a doctor’s appointment. The speed at which my doctor went from discussing my ear issues to ethics in journalism was somewhat astounding. And it isn’t surprising that people feel this way. I once wrote a story for The News about a Pakistani designer who was accused of plagiarising the work of an Indian designer. It was rebutted by a half-page story in the Daily Times, claiming journalists were bribed by India to defame local designers.

In 2011, as outrage simmered over the murder of the journalist Saleem Shahzad, whose body was dumped in a canal by his killers, the government offered journalists a laughable solution. Rehman Malik, the interior minister infamous for his gaffes, said journalists could carry arms to protect themselves. Not much has changed since then, and the few moments of optimism have eroded. On 19 March 2014, in what was largely heralded as an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the Committee to Protect Journalists, the international watchdog organisation, that the government would set up a joint commission to look into attacks on the press, and that steps would be taken to expedite the prosecution of journalists’ murder cases. Sharif’s commitments appear to have been forgotten, as Pakistan’s press gears up for another year in which reporters and editors bear the brunt of the machinations of both the state and the militias. Little can save journalists from a hostile environment that only encourages silence.

Saba Imtiaz is a journalist based in Pakistan. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and the forthcoming No Team of Angels