Journalism is a dangerous profession in Pakistan. But a vibrant, relatively free press still exists in this volatile country
For as long as anyone cares to remember, journalism has been a dangerous profession in Pakistan. Although of late much of the attention has focused on the risks to foreign journalists, the situation for local reporters is equally, if not more, parlous.
First consider that virtually all the on-the-ground news you read from Pakistan, especially from conflict zones, has been gathered by a local reporter under considerable personal risk. That is certainly the case for journalists working in the northwest frontier where the Taliban are most active. “I [do some] work for Voice of America,” one veteran reporter, who requested anonymity, told me in the safety of a hotel room in Islamabad. “Even now, I do not tell [the Taliban he interviews] that. It would mean certain death.”
Only last week, the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and two other journalists were kidnapped by an unknown gang in a region bordering Pakistan’s tribal areas. Although they were thankfully released on Wednesday, many others have not been so lucky.
Despite the risks, journalists like Abdul-Ahad remain a vital part of keeping the powerful accountable. Earlier this year, for instance, the media was at the forefront of exposing attempts by the current and previous Pakistan government to crack down on supporters of the current chief justice of Pakistan. Other scandals, like illegal commodity syndicates allegedly involving the ruling elite, have also been brought to public attention thanks to independent media.
Of course, Pakistan’s press is far from perfect. Although this year most outlets have exposed the brutalities of the Pakistan Taliban, over the past eight years that the insurgency has existed many either voiced sympathy for them or ignored their excesses. Even now many commentators refuse to refer to the insurgents as Taliban and instead suggest that there are foreign hands in most everything that occurs in this country.
The government has also on occasion criticised the media for broadcasting graphic images of the violence that has rocked the major cities for exacerbating the fears of an already panicked population. It has also shut out independent reporting from the frontlines, making it difficult to determine the success or destructiveness of army operations.
Some journalists have even been threatened or killed in mysterious circumstances, leaving many to suspect covert government involvement.
Kamran Shafi, the noted columnist from the Dawn newspaper, had bullets fired into his Islamabad home last month in what is widely believed to be an attempt by Pakistan’s security establishment, or elements within it, to silence one of the more independent and critical voices in the media.
A decade earlier, Najam Sethi, another veteran journalist, was detained by federal intelligence agents because of the perceived “anti-Pakistan” bias of his reporting. Sethi was released owing largely to his high profile and international lobbying. But most journalists do not have these protections.
Back in February, the bullet-ridden body of Musa Khankhel was found in the Swat valley a day after reporting on a peace deal between a pro-Taliban cleric and the government. Although no conclusive investigations were held, Khankhel’s employer GeoTV believes state intelligence murdered Khankhel out of fear he would expose the reality that the peace agreement was actually aiding the Taliban’s advance into the region. Khankhel had previously survived two assassination attempts by what he claimed were state security forces.
The government is not monolithically opposed to the press. Nor is it the only one that intimidates journalists. Expose the misdemeanours of gangsters or religious groups and you could face anything from death threats to rent-a-crowd mobs outside your residence, hurling profanities and garbage.
How is it then that a vibrant, relatively free press has survived in such a volatile country with a long history of autocratic rule? There appears to be three main reasons. First, the media are the modern incarnation of the subcontinent’s ancient literary traditions where laureates reflected the moods and aspirations of entire communities. It helps that Pakistan’s poetic languages describe the most heinous and beautiful of things in highly allegorical terms. This heritage finds a natural ally in the popular media.
Second, with power so highly concentrated, the media has been one of the only ways that information ever seeps out of the elite and into the mainstream. Allied to this is the third reason: the powerful are so dependent on the weak – be they servants, functionaries or relatives – that it is near impossible to keep things secret.
All the more reason why journalists don’t die of boredom in Pakistan.