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Under attack

Omar Quraishi January 23, 2014

Journalism in Pakistan is being targeted by Islamic extremists. Omar Quraishi, an editor who lost three coworkers in an attack last week, argues that government and society must address the challenge to press freedom.

destroyed car
Image: A.Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

The media in Pakistan is under full frontal assault - the media group that owns the newspaper where I work has been attacked three times in the past six months and the toll has been three killed and one person permanently paralyzed. All four have been either guards protecting our offices in Karachi - Pakistan's largest city and commercial and business capital (but also one of the most violent cities in the world, with last year's death toll over 3,200) or a driver and a technician.

They lost their lives because they live in a society where an attack on one group is not seen by the rest of civil society as an attack on everyone. Take, for example, the most recent attack on Express Media Group - where three people died and which was claimed right away by the Taliban - which was not even reported in a major English newspaper only because it happens to be owned by a rival media organization.

Media work as a death warrant

Then, there have been many in civil society, and especially vocal on social media, who say pretty much that the media deserves what it is getting right now because it has been showing programming that many in Pakistan's increasingly conservative society deem as profane, vulgar and too pro-India or the west. For these people, however, the broadcast of such content is enough for all those who work in the media to be given a death warrant, since that is how many journalists themselves perceive the Taliban attacks.

Following the attack on Express Media Group, the Taliban also made known a 29 page fatwa (or decree) in which they have tried to explain that they are now attacking the media directly because they believe that it is now playing a partial role and is also misinforming its audience with respect to the views and actions of the Taliban.

For example, one instance that has been quoted is that the media at times reports that the Taliban are behind an attack when they say they have not claimed it and in fact distanced themselves from it. The other charge by the Taliban against the media is that it is inciting society towards the Taliban who say that their ultimate goal is the formation of an Islamic state in Pakistan. Hence, the reasoning goes, that since the media, or parts of it are now, according to the Taliban, coming in the way of the achievement of that goal, it too must be targeted.

Journalists as targets

In most cases, the media is doing nothing but report on the acts of terror, suicide bombings and so on that take place in Pakistan, almost on a daily basis. It reports the claims that are made following most such attacks and at times carries commentary on them, based often on the editorial policy and/or ideology of a particular publication or television channel.

The Taliban fatwa is pretty specific in that it seeks to target around two dozen journalists, owners of media enterprises, television anchors and editors. The Taliban are also saying to journalists that they should now, if they value their own safety, choose another profession.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a former spokesman of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, was quoted in the national English daily Dawn as saying: “Even at this stage the media could mend its ways and become a neutral entity. Otherwise, the media should not feel secure. A few barriers and security escorts will not help. If we can get inside military installations, media offices should not be too much of a challenge.”

Of course, this meaning of being a "neutral" party implies that the media toe the line of the Taliban on coverage, reporting and commentary. That is precisely why the media is going through such a dangerous phase because the state is completely absent from the scene.

No response

None of the attacks on the Express were followed up with any arrests let alone a trial, and the same is the case with almost all acts of violence against journalists in Pakistan. The other issue is that while only one organization has been attacked so far, journalists, society and the state need to understand that this is part of an assault on the whole media, and time for them to get united and deal with the threat head on.

Omar R. Quraishi (@omar_quraishi) is the editorial page editor at the Express Tribune in Karachi.