A few days ago, a hashtag appeared on Twitter in Pakistan: #IndiaHellForJournalists. Yes. That happened. The trend was apparently a reaction to the murders of journalists Ranjan Rajdev and Indradev Yadav in Bihar and Jharkhand within a span of 24 hours. Now, there is indeed a report by Reporters Without Borders, which places India as the third-most dangerous place for journalists in 2015, just after Syria and Iraq and ahead of Pakistan and every other Asian country. This is because five journalists were killed in India in 2015, as compared to two in Pakistan.
Though it is good to see Pakistanis worrying for their neighbours, one can’t help but notice the irony of it all. Comparing the overall number of fatalities can be misleading simply because India is so much larger in terms of population than Pakistan. Moreover, death toll and arrests cannot be the only measures by which we judge a country’s commitment towards a free press. And Pakistan should know that better than any other country.
Stuck between the army and terrorists
India’s rank on the Annual World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) — also produced by Reporters Without Borders — is 133 out of 180 nations in 2016, which is a jump of three places compared to 2015. Pakistan was ranked at 147, 14 places below India.
This might be the case because the crackdown on the Pakistani media became fiercer from 2014 onward after the country’s most popular TV channel, Geo, asserted that Zaheer ul Islam, Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, was behind an attack on one of its leading journalists, Hamid Mir.
At present, Pakistan is ranked below India’s “abuse score” rank, which is representative of the violent harassment experienced by the press. For India, the absolute number was 59.58, which is higher than Sri Lanka’s score of 40.6 but below Pakistan’s score of 64.91 and China’s score of 89.64 in 2015.
This might be because most Pakistani journalists have stopped working in conflict zones like Balochistan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pakistan’s troubled eastern and north-eastern areas have witnessed a severe clampdown and censorship along with umpteen deaths and many more threats.
Furthermore, after the fate of Geo in 2014, when it was taken off-air for several months in many areas of Pakistan and its teams were attacked on several occasions, every media outlet treads carefully when it comes to the army. In fairness, though, owing to the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, the threats to media posed by militants, particularly Taliban, have been reduced.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 56 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1998. Majority of them were print and TV journalists . Armed groups like Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Baloch separatists also harass, kill and threaten journalists in the conflict-ridden western half of Pakistan, which includes Balochistan, Federally Administered Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The B word
Covering religious issues is also problematic in Pakistan. There is growing intolerance in society and everything deemed anti-religious causes an outcry. Mob violence is not uncommon. One controversy can quickly become an opportunity or excuse for militants to attack and gain publicity.
Another dilemma is blasphemy, which can land the accused in jail for decades or with a death sentence, without much evidence. Repeating blasphemous content or covering it becomes not only illegal but also a security risk. Moreover, if the state does not persecute the ostensible sinner, mobs will.
When the murderer of the blasphemy-accused Salman Taseer was hanged this February, there were attacks on media outlets, because the murderer’s supporters felt betrayed at not been given coverage on TV channels, which was actually restricted by the government. Religious news, particularly controversies, always pose a veiled threat to the media in Pakistan.
“One has to be very, very careful with religious issues like blasphemy,” said Murtaza Solangi, a television news anchor. “Usually I try to stay clear of religious issues. Last year, the federal information minister was accused of being anti-Islamic after a speech he gave. I did not touch the issue. However, when banners against him cropped up in Islamabad, I asked that if a minister cannot get protection from these elements, how can an ordinary man expect it? I used the development as an example of how the National Action Plan, meant to fight terrorism, has failed.”
Stories about extremism, religious intolerance and blasphemy are more likely to make it in the English newspapers, which have a small readership in general. Such stories seldom make it on television. Media owners, even those running stable channels, are unwilling to take any risk.
“In a religious story, I will be careful with my wording,” said Zia ur Rahman, a reporter based in Karachi. “For example, I will not refer to the worship place of the Ahmadi community, a religious minority that doubts the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as a mosque.”
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, has a history of violence. Not many want to report stories like what happened when supporters of the political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party banned a religious outfit called Ahle-Sunnat WalJamaat (ASWJ). Those who do report are likely to be caught in a dangerous crossfire. Others, including the Taliban, are often accused of threatening, harassing or killing journalists. In some cases, they themselves take the responsibility of some of the killings and threats. The onslaught is quick and ferocious.
“On a critical story, I try to make it balanced by taking quotes from both the sides,” said Zia ur Rehman. “In critical stories, about certain religious and security issues, we censor. Recently, I started avoiding taking up many of the sensitive issues for security reasons. But if the story is too important, then I balance the story and be careful with the tone.” He added that in most cases, the editor will also refuse to publish a contentious story.
Security agencies keep the media under a tight leash. Amnesty International cited them as a threat to journalists in a report called “A bullet has been chosen for you: Attacks on journalists in Pakistan”, published in 2014.
However, no issue is censored more than the separatist movement in Balochistan, where over two dozen journalists have been killed in the last seven years. Those supporting the separatist movement through their publications were especially targeted.
“Self-censorship is not a choice in Balochistan anymore,” said Adnan Aamir, Editor of Balochistan Point, an online newspaper. “If a journalist wants to live and remain in Pakistan, then he or she has to self-censor his reporting. I avoid any mention of security operations in Balochistan, missing persons and Mama Qadeer (leader of a movement to find missing persons) in any way.”
Censorship gains significance in a powerful medium like television. “The censorship in TV comes from the owners themselves. Every channel has a slant,” says Murtaza Solangi. “They all have their holy cows. The Geo debacle has raised the bar for criticising the security establishment. Previously, criticising the Taliban was a problem, but since the operation Zarb-e-Azb, they have been weakened.”
Urdu channels are worse off
Majority of Pakistanis neither speak nor understand English. Therefore, Urdu media is under far greater surveillance by militants and the military. It is also more susceptible to sensationalism and censorship. One such journalist who paid the price for shifting to a more popular medium was Raza Rumi, a liberal and pro-peace activist, who found himself increasingly at odds with the establishment and militants once he started his TV show.
“Yes, shifting to a ‘vernacular’ medium did make a difference. We started receiving hate calls from day one,” said Rumi. “The problem started in November 2013 when Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan issued a fatwa against journalists. In January I was told my name was on their hitlist. This was the time when some people wanted to negotiate with Taliban. I was against this. But in January I shifted my position, saying that perhaps one last attempt at deliberations should be attempted, yet I also expressed my lack of confidence in it. I was constantly being advised by my channel, Express News, that I should not criticise the Taliban. But I did not follow that instruction.”
In March 2014, his car was attacked and Rumi narrowly escaped. But his driver was killed.
“I could not change what I think about Pakistan’s foreign policy issues, ties with India and the US, the sectarian and militant organisations, the issue of regulating seminaries and the problems with Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law,” he said.
The police arrested a group of people who admitted to have ties with a sectarian group and said they had attacked Rumi because of his stance in favour of Shias, a minority sect. However, one can never be sure as to what actually caused the attack.
Despite the murders, violence and harassment being reported by journalists, there is little justice for them. The CPJ report says that 94 per cent of the perpetrators go free in Pakistan and ranks it ninth on the impunity list. The government and the state fail to do anything more than condemn these attacks. Amnesty international researched on these cases and declared that adequate investigation had not taken place. However, India is much worse than Pakistan in this regard and the CPJ places it on number 14.
“Life comes before ‘story’”, said Zia ur Rehman. “Any state operation against these armed groups is temporary, whereas these violent elements and I will be in this city forever. Many of my friends have had to leave Karachi, Balochistan or tribal areas after being threatened. Some did it temporarily, some permanently and others were killed.”
Whether Pakistan is worse for journalists or India is hardly the issue. The real problem is that an atmosphere of threat and fear has been permeated in both countries which has led to journalists openly admitting to self censorship. The harassment and murders of journalists has now become common. Journalists sign up for the profession to bring stories to people, not to lay down their lives. The low ranking on World Press Institute of both India and Pakistan not only show that journalists are under constant threat but also must point to the fact that citizens of both countries cannot get the facts and truth. That is roughly one-eighth of the world’s population. This is not good news.