Ahmad Noorani and the difficulties of being a journalist in Pakistan

The threat scribes face is from both state and non-state actors.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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This year’s Global Impunity Index – a list of countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free – ranks Pakistan at the 7th place. The report by the Committee to Protect Journalists states that over the past decade, 21 journalists were killed in the country with “complete impunity”.

The picture becomes clearer when you consider last week’s attack on investigative journalist Ahmad Noorani in Pakistan. Within hours of the assault, Islamabad was abuzz with rumours that the country’s military-led intelligence agencies were behind the attack.

Stories started doing the rounds in newsrooms that it was Noorani’s critical stories on the military and intelligence agencies’ role in the probe into financial dealings of disqualified prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family that could have been the reason behind the attack.

Noorani was on his way home after finishing work at office when he was attacked. His car was stopped by a gang of six armed men, who dragged him out and thrashed him with iron knuckles, knives and iron chains. The attackers fled after a crowd started gathering and traffic came to a halt.

Sensing the wave of adverse reactions from the media community, the military was quick to condemn the attack. “Attack on Ahmad Noorani condemned,” the military spokesman tweeted, adding that the assault was a malicious attempt to cause unrest and assured full support in catching the culprits and bringing them to justice.

A representative of the military’s media wing visited the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, where Noorani is under treatment, with a bouquet of flowers for the injured journalist.

The general belief in the journalist community in Islamabad is that the attack on Noorani is the handiwork of intelligence services, though this is not based on hard facts. It is based on the understanding that Noorani’s reporting has been critical of the military and intelligence services, which could only attract their wrath.

More importantly, there have been dozens of untraced cases of beating up of journalists (critical of the military and its policies) in Islamabad in the past 15 to 20 years. Noorani’s case is seen as a continuation of that trend.

Be that as it may, never in the history of Islamabad has an attack on a journalist been traced to the intelligence services. The probability of that is slim, given the power they wield, which is why no one has so far come out in the open to point a needle of suspicion at the intel services.

Noorani has written extensively on the military’s role in the probe into Sharif’s financial dealings, which led to his ouster from the prime minister’s office. He has also reported on the financial malpractices of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party members, and as a result attracted the wrath of his supporters on social media. Some of Khan’s followers publicly advocated violence against Noorani.

A senior management official of Jang Group (the media group that owns The News International for which Noorani works) said they have been very careful not to accuse the military and its intelligence agencies for the attack on their staffer, Noorani. He himself is very circumspect in his private conversation and is not ready to accuse the military for the attack.

“We don’t see any wisdom in blaming the intelligence services for the attack without a proper investigation establishing the basic facts of the case… we think this attack could be ascribed to increasing lawlessness in society and to non-state actors, which are an even bigger threat to press freedom than state actors,” a senior management official of Jang Group said.

One of the senior colleagues of Noorani recently penned an article (in the wake of the attack) which mentions lawlessness in society as the biggest threat to press freedom. “The day Noorani was attacked was also the day when in Quetta (another safe city, we say) practically no newspapers were delivered to homes because militant groups had threatened to kill and attack newspaper distributors, insisting that by not publishing their point of view newspapers had become their enemies. Only in Pakhtun-dominated areas did newspapers land at homes; elsewhere there was zero delivery. Some news reports suggest that almost 90 per cent of the printed copies stayed at distribution centres,” reads the article of Talat Hussein, a senior journalist who also works for the Jang Group.

Needless to say, Pakistan is considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, as threats from both military and militants are a norm.

In 2014, Hamid Mir, a prominent journalist and talk show host, survived an attempt on his life. Mir’s family directly accused the then chief of the nation’s Inter-Services Intelligence for the attack. In 2011, another leading investigative journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was found dead, leading to accusations that the intelligence agency was involved.

Non-state actors or militant groups are no less of a threat to journalists in the nation. The Pakistani government claims that the security situation in the country has improved, but only a year ago many senior journalists were sending their families out of the country, out of fear of the Taliban.

For many in the Pakistani media, the situation they are facing is life-threatening. Some mediapersons have private guards with them where ever they go, while others have sent their families out of the country, to at least keep their children out of harm’s way.

Taliban’s intimidation of Pakistani media assumed an extremely dangerous face in 2014 and 2015.

The threatening phone calls, text messages and explicit warnings from Taliban spokesmen were not enough to intimidate the journalists. In March 2014, three staffers of a leading media group were killed in Taliban attacks in Karachi. Gunmen on motorcycles shot dead three Express News workers after ambushing a stationary media van in Karachi. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility in a live telephone call from Afghanistan.

“We accept responsibility. I would like to present some reasons: At present, the Pakistani media is playing the role of (enemies and spreading) venomous propaganda against the Tehreek-e-Taliban. They have assumed the (role of) the opposition. We had intimated the media earlier and warn it once again that (they must) side with us in this venomous propaganda,” TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Express News. “We have warned Express News a number of times. I have contacted Express News myself and conveyed to them our grievances,” he added.

I interviewed a senior Pakistani journalist in his office on the issue. He was seated at a distance from its large windows, a small precaution against a potential blast or sniper’s bullet.

In such difficult times, it is really disheartening to see divisions in the journalistic community along political lines. While pro-government journalists are blaming military-led intelligence agencies for the attack on Noorani (though in private), anti-government journalists are blaming the Intelligence Bureau for masterminding the attack in order to malign the military.

One of the obscure Urdu language dailies went on to start a smear campaign against Noorani while he is still bed-ridden. The daily accused Noorani of having any affair with a female university student and said the male classmates of the student had beaten him out of jealousy.

There is hardly any doubt among serious journalists that Noorani was targeted for his reporting – though there is no agreement on who actually attacked him.


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