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No place for journos

Qurratulain Zaman, London May 2, 2014

The situation of journalists has deteriorated since the restoration of democratic rule in Pakistan, reveals Amnesty International in its new report, 'A bullet has been chosen for you - attack on journalists in Pakistan.'

Pakistanische Männer lesen Zeitschriften - Taliban Führer Hakimullah Mehsud bei Drohnenangriff getötet
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The London-based human rights organisation reports that 34 journalists have been killed since 2008 and 8 since Nawaz Sharif took over in June 2013. What's more, many Pakistani journalists have contacted Amnesty International (AI) and reported threats, harassment, abduction and torture. Many were lucky to escape assassination attempts in the same time period.

On April 19, one of Pakistan's most well-known TV anchors Hamid Mir was shot six times in Karachi. He is alive and in hospital. Maya Pastakia, Pakistan campaigner at Amnesty International says, "The recent attack on Hamid Mir's life is emblematic of the threats and dangers that journalists face for reporting on sensitive issues. Mir often reported on the human rights situation in Balochistan. His family believe he was targeted by the [military's spy agency] ISI, but we don't know. It could be the ISI or the Taliban."

Hamid Mir interviews Osama bin Laden in November 2001
Here, Hamid Mir - who was attacked two weeks ago - interviews Osama bin Laden in 2001Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Who is behind these attacks?

There are a range of actors who are named directly by Amnesty International. The research shows that journalists face threats from both state and non-state actors from every corner of the country. These include the notorious military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter Service Intelligence (ISI); the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), the strongest political party in Karachi; the armed Islamists of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and its close associate group Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaah (ASWJ); the Pakistani Taliban and other al Qaeda linked groups; and both anti and pro-state Baloch ethnic groups.

Before the attack on Mir, Raza Rumi, famous blogger, one of Pakistan's leading "twitterati" and TV show host was attacked on March 28 in Lahore. He too survived but Mustafa, his 25-year-old driver was killed. Rumi was on a Taliban hit list that was issued earlier this year. His moderate views were taken as anti-Islam and he was threatened on twitter and Facebook many times.

All security experts were unanimous in the view that the attackers had missed their target and they would come back to strike again, Rumi explained. "What choice did I have? I had to leave Pakistan to regain my sanity - I was going bonkers," he told DW from an undisclosed location.

"Now I have been away and it is difficult to do these shows from abroad. I am not sure whether I can go back to TV journalism without causing some form of harm to my family back in Pakistan. I do think about their safety."

Journalists murdered in Pakistan 2008 - 2014

The Punjab police arrested six men for the attack on Rumi. They are members of banned militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). This Sunni outfit has taken responsibility of many attacks on Shia Muslims in the country. The co-founder of LeJ Malik Ishaq has been named as a global terrorist by the US department of state. However, he moves freely in Pakistan and has even been spotted with the Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah.

Rumi told DW LeJ was well known for its ability to muzzle the process of justice in Pakistan. "I doubt whether our regular criminal justice system will bring these people to justice. But I want to press hard that the killers of my driver Mustafa and his family are brought to justice."

Culture of impunity

The current climate of impunity sends a clear signal that any group with the means and intent can get away with murder. In only two out of the 73 cases that Amnesty International investigated had perpetrators been brought to justice. One case was the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, the other of Wali Khan Babar of Geo TV in 2014.

"The reason the attack on journalists go unabated is the climate of impunity. The government must demonstrate some political will and bring all suspected perpetrators to justice regardless of their links to the Taliban or the military or any powerful political parties," Pastakia told DW.

Pakistan Malik Ishaq Chef der Lashkar-e-Jhangvi
Wanted terrorist Malik Ishaq of the LeJ enjoys impunity in PakistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Earlier this year, Islamabad promised to improve the dire situation of journalists. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in March 2014 pledged to set up a special public prosecution office tasked with investigating attacks on journalists.

Red lines

AI research shows that no state actor is more feared than the ISI. Journalists across the country and working in all media platforms have brought complaints to Amnesty International on various human rights abuses ranging from harassment and intimidation to attacks. Journalists risk the ire of the ISI if they report about security lapses by the military, the spy agency's alleged links to armed groups like the Taliban or human rights abuses in Balochistan or the Northwest. Working for foreign media considered hostile by the state also puts Pakistani journalists on the danger list.

The powerful spy agency has been implicated in several cases of abduction, torture and killings of journalists, but no serving ISI official has ever been held to account, allowing the organization to effectively operate beyond the reach of the law.

Human rights violations against journalists by the ISI often follow a similar pattern that starts with threatening phone calls and escalates into abductions, torture and other ill-treatment, and in some cases death. AI highlights the cases of Umar Cheema and Saleem Shahzad. The latter was killed in May 2011. Shahzad had sent a message to Human Rights Watch that he had been receiving death threats from the ISI.

"The government can't get away exonerating themselves by saying it is difficult to tackle the ISI. These spy agencies are state institutions and these institutions should be under civilian control. No state institution is above the law," stresses Pastakia.

The figures shown in the AI report leave a big question mark on the performance of the two democratic governments in Pakistan since 2008. It is apparent that the civilian governments are not fully in charge of the country's security policy.

"It is the seventh year of democratic government but they have not made an effort to reform the police system, or the civil service or even bring back the local government system," Rumi said. "What that essentially means is that they have contributed to the existing state of lawlessness and insecurity."

Role of media organizations

Pakistan has 89 privately owned TV channels and 115 radio channels. Private TV channels are mainly in Urdu. The Urdu language press is traditionally inclined towards right-wing views and so are the private channels in the country.

symbolic Picture Shows army People Holding big guns
Many question who is really in charge in PakistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Strong rivalries based on personal animosities exist between the owners of the various media organizations. These rivalries even outweigh any concerns for the security of journalists. The Express Group, for which Rumi worked, was attacked five times in the last few months. But these attacks were downplayed by other networks like Geo TV. They blacked out these attacks on journalists until the same happened to their own staffer Hamid Mir.

Rumi stresses that solidarity in the media is very crucial at this point in time.

"These companies are commercial and they don't care about media ethics. It is disappointing. Solidarity must be practiced in the media community and there should be calls for the credible investigation on attacks carried out against journalists by all sides within the media community."