By Umer Ali
Editor’s Note: The writer is an award-winning Pakistani journalist currently based in Aarhus, Denmark. He has reported on human rights, terrorism and censorship in Pakistan. He tweets at @iamumer1. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
As the human rights activists are observing the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, the circumstances for journalists working in Pakistan have never been so difficult. Only a week ago, The News journalist Ahmad Noorani was intercepted by the knife-yielding “unknown men” at a busy intersection in broad daylight in the heart of Islamabad. He was severely beaten up by the attackers, which left him critically injured.
Despite reassurances of the investigation by the government and the Interior Minister announcing it as a “test case”, there is little hope of effective inquiry into the attack among the journalistic circles. The reason for this pessimism is the impunity with which the journalists have been attacked in the past. Only rarely do the attackers have been brought to justice for attacking the representatives of the “Fourth Estate”.
Before Noorani, senior journalist Matiullah Jan was also attacked while he was with his children inside the car. Fortunately, he and his children weren’t hurt, but it well explained the lengths to which the attackers can go to silence the dissenting voices. Following a similar pattern, the attack was condemned by the government officials and an investigation into the attack was announced.
The list of attacks on journalists in Pakistan is never-ending, which is one of the reasons Freedom House terms the press in Pakistan as “Not Free”. In the 2017 report, Freedom House notes: “Fear of reprisals has caused some journalists to self-censor, particularly on military or intelligence operations, sensitive social or religious issues, and certain militant groups and political parties.”
Similarly, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also ranked Pakistan as the 7th worst country on the impunity index; where the attackers get away with murdering journalists without getting arrested or prosecuted. The CPJ also holds the state intelligence agencies, militant groups, and political parties to be responsible for the attacks on journalists.
With these enforced disappearances and violent attacks on critical voices, the bar for freedom of speech is reaching new lows. Zeenat Shahzadi, the only “missing” female journalist mysteriously came back home on October 21. Good news indeed, but will the public ever know who abducted her in the first place, and will her abductors ever be held responsible for their actions?
More alarming is the fact that the space for dissenting journalists and activists is shrinking even on the online platforms. The abduction of five bloggers who were critical of the Pakistan’s military in January this year sent a message to others using social media to express their dissent. The released bloggers have since spoken out, accusing a “state intelligence agency” of abduction and torture.
While no agency claimed responsibility for their abduction, it took only a couple of months before the Federal Investigation Agency arrested and charged a Quetta-based reporter Zafarullah Achakzai for criticizing the “state institutions” on social media. One can only imagine the gravity of the situation when the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif who still virtually calls the shots for the government “demanded the recovery” of members from his own party’s social media team who went missing.
A few years back, the silencing of journalists was limited to specific areas – from the state-backed militant groups to the military operations in Waziristan and Balochistan. However, gagging the journalists for merely opining on social media pushes Pakistan closer to the Orwellian world; where even thinking critically is a crime.
As a result, as indicated by a survey for my research in Pakistan last year, more than 80% of the journalists in Pakistan resort to some sort of self-censorship to avoid bodily harm. Pakistan was recently elected as a member state of the United States Human Rights Council.
With some state institutions as the prime suspects behind the attacks on journalists and activists, does Pakistan have the moral authority to actively pursue human rights issues at a platform like UNHRC? Now more than ever, there is an urgent need to rethink the official policy towards the safety and protection of journalists. Otherwise, Pakistan cannot present its “soft image” of a democratic republic to the world.