This article was written for the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, and can be found here. The image is from DCMF.
The perils of journalism in Pakistan
Blindfolded, with hands cuffed behind his back, he was led up the stairs to a first floor room. There, his shirt was torn off, and his trousers removed. He was thrown face down onto the floor. The assailants whipped his bare back for 25 minutes with a leather strap, or a ‘chabuk’ in Urdu. It can be soaked in water or oil, depending on whether the torturer needs it to cut flesh, or skim and punish. There was a cane thrown in for nuance – it does a better job of causing deep bruising to muscle and tissue.
The victim was Omar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News, a Pakistani daily. He was assaulted in 2011.
Omar Cheema’s story is not new. In Pakistan, journalists remain at high risk of torture sessions to remind them where the red lines are. Some result in death.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) ranks Pakistan as the sixth most dangerous place for journalists in the world. In 2011, five journalists have been killed. The list of beatings, coercive acts of violence and intimidation would be far higher. Interestingly, there are far fewer journalists imprisoned in Pakistan; the intelligence apparatus prefers more subtle yet brutal methods of persuasion.
Azaz Syed is a journalist for Dawn TV and writes for the Dawn newspaper. The Dawn group is a media heavyweight, but that didn’t stop Azaz from being targeted.
A dangerous place for journalism
“Pakistan is a dangerous place for journalism,” he said, in an interview with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. “There’s really no second opinion to it. There are a number of internal and external factors that have led to this status quo.”
Internal factors include weak democratic factions, a history of military rule, and the intelligence cloak and dagger agencies that come tied to the military’s bootstraps. Each time the military has been in power, its eyes and ears have extended across the country. It’s naive to think, Azaz says, that these eavesdropping networks are bundled away when civilian governments take power.
The sectarian nature of Pakistan doesn’t help. Each province is rife with those pursuing their own interests. From the Punjabis in the country’s breadbasket to the impoverished Balouch citizens in the south stirring up their own insurgency; from the mountain terrains of the north where people jump between Afghanistan and Pakistan almost at will to the country’s cosmopolitan coastal city of Karachi, everyone has their own axe to rub against the grindstone. Externally, the war on terror and the uncertainty it has catalyzed has affected Pakistan’s reporting environment.
To say that every journalist in Pakistan is under threat is an exaggeration. As Azaz notes, there are two sorts of reporters: those who don’t touch grey areas and those that step over the red line with impunity.
“People who hunt down stories that implicate the state and its machinations are usually subject to coercion of some sort,” he said.
This coercion can be deadly, such as the case of Saleem Shahzad, a writer for the Hong Kong based Asia Times Online. He didn’t survive his corrective beating. He was abducted in Islamabad and his corpse dumped in the city’s outskirts.
Shahzad had already been threatened by the ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency. The previous year, he was summoned to their offices to present an explanation for a story that the establishment had disliked.
If bribes fail, coercion sets in
“They contact you by telephone at first. The agents are polite, mild mannered and well spoken,” explained Azaz. “They’ll tell you their dos and don’ts, and ask you to work in the interests of national solidarity.” The next step is a financial reward or another bribe. If that fails, coercion sets in with a side order of harassment.
If one still refuses to toe the line, things intensify. Azaz’s care windows have been smashed twice; once while it was parked inside his garage. The third incident was a drive-by strafing of his house with live rounds by men on motorcycles. The next set of bullets would be sent “directly at you,” a voice at the end of a phone call told him.
Omar Cheema was on his way home and had entered the deserted streets of his neighbourhood. He was intercepted by a Land Cruiser SUV and followed by another car. Passengers piled out and accused him of running over a pedestrian. They asked him to come with them.
“I was alone, and outnumbered. I couldn’t resist even if I wanted to,” he said. A blindfolded journey and a bloody beating followed. “They took videos of me naked on the floor. When they let me go, they reminded me they could easily find me again for round two, and said they would release those videos on Youtube.” Omar’s eyebrows and head were also shaved.
Targeted killings and beatings are the tip of the iceberg, said Omar. Pakistan is dangerous because of pressure from liberalised news organizations to report from the scene as fast as possible, he says. Coupled with ill-prepared journalists rushing to the scene without due precaution, this leads to injuries and occasionally, death. “It’s akin to being in a film crew – people are asked to get up as close as possible and film live shots,” says Omar. Blasts and gunfire exchanges present risk and precautions, training and safety gear remain minimal.
Take the case of Wali Khan Babar, a Pushtoon journalist reporting from Karachi. In January, he was one of more than 10 people shot and killed in sectarian violence that broke out after an attack on a local leader of the Awami National Party. Then there was the case of Pushtoon journalist Nasrullah Afridi, reporting for the Urdu publication Mashreq, who was killed in a car bomb in early 2011.
“The indignation is why I speak out”
How do journalists still muster up the nerve to go about their business? On the one hand, they have few ways of employing safety measures. On the other, it’s often not certain which faction is coming for them and for what reason, until it’s too late.
“It’s not really about cowardice or bravery. The indignation of having been targeted needlessly when one hasn’t done anything wrong is why I speak out,” Omar said. “The army and intelligence need to realise strapping on guns doesn’t make them any more patriotic than journalists are. We’re also working to our country’s benefit.” He pauses, and then repeats: “What have we done wrong? What did I do to deserve a torture session? Nothing. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Their only mistake is stepping into an uncertain terrain where many powers are jockeying for power. The civilian government is being subjected to universal derision. Intelligence failures are becoming a sore point.
But still, doesn’t risk of death mean one should temper coverage? “One can hold silence forever once when one is dead,” Omar said. “But better societies do not come about unless people speak out. The media will eventually win this as new powers come into play, and the media and judiciary assert their independence. We will win this.”
Hisham Wyne is a commentator on socio-politics and current affairs. He writes for newspapers including Pakistan’s Express Tribune and the American news site The Huffington Post.