Pakistani journalists: standing tall – my article in EPW

Pakistani journalists: standing tall

Journalists in Pakistan walk a tightrope between the military and the militants, risking their lives as never before to get the truth into the public domain. They have always had to tiptoe around directly challenging the concepts upheld by the security establishment. But as a Pakistani writer and filmmaker writes, the media in Pakistan is still standing.

By: Beena Sarwar 

Economic and Political Weekly, India | Vol XLVI No.29 July 16, 2011 | PDF | Text below

“Say a prayer for Saleem Shahid, my friend, then let’s talk about cricket, who’s going to be the next captain, let’s gossip,” urged senior journalist Nusrat Javeed in the television talk show ‘Bolta Pakistan’ that he co-hosts with the younger Mushtaq Minhas.

As Minhas tried to bring up the issue of the investigative journalist Saleem Shehzad who had just been found murdered, Javeed interrupted him. “Merey bhai, focus on getting good ratings. Television is all about ratings. This is the message we need to understand. Get your ratings up, talk about the corruption of politicians, talk about drones, go ahead and bash America, spread Imran Khan’s thoughts from house to house, or even better, leave journalism altogether. You must learn your lesson, identify the safe areas and play there… I myself like cooking. I think maybe I should start a TV show: ‘Nusrat can cook’ – you get to travel also…”

Savage sarcasm, satire, and black humour are ways to deal with pressures that journalists in Pakistan face, particularly since the ‘war on terror’ that has pushed them onto a tightrope, caught between the military and the militants.

As in most of South Asia, Pakistan has a bureaucratic culture where the right to information or freedom of information are fledgling concepts and even the most innocuous government file is often stamped ‘top secret’. Journalists who rely on the ubiquitous ‘reliable source’ to obtain the story sometimes end up making a deal with the devil. A source provides exclusive information that will make the front page; in return, you may have to publish a story against someone, or use inaccurate or slanted information. In situations where reporters obtain information legitimately – say Sweden, where journalists routinely peruse government correspondence and trawl through official registers without being beholden to anyone – journalists can reject such requests or look for verification from other sources. But when the information is obtained clandestinely, or ‘leaked’ by dubious sources, this may not be possible.

Of course Pakistan is not the only country where journalists cultivate secret sources. Remember the New York Times report alleging that Iraq was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction? It paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq, with disastrous consequences not just for that country but the world. That lie for which the NYT subsequently and belatedly apologised, led to a situation that contributed to the current state of affairs in Pakistan, including the increasing risks journalists face.

The risks to reporters are multiplied by the high stakes of the post-9/11 world with its murky underworld of intelligence gathering, particularly in Pakistan where the intelligence agencies also have a self-styled agenda to ensure compliance with the ‘ideology’ of Pakistan. According to one interpretation of this ideology, India is the enemy, Pakistan is the torchbearer of Islam, and (since the Afghan war of the 1980s that Pakistan fought as a front-line state for the United States against the Soviets) ‘jihad’ or ‘holy war’ is the way to enforce these concepts.

Pakistani journalists have always had to tiptoe around directly challenging the concepts upheld by the security establishment, particularly around conflict situations and the wars fought with India (portrayed in Pakistan as Pakistani wins after Indian aggression). The other sacred cow has always been Islam, the dominant religion in Pakistan, an emotive issue that governments have often tried to exploit for political gains.

When Bhutto felt his government weakening, he tried to play the religious card. He made Friday the weekly holiday, got the Ahmedis declared as non-Muslims, and banned gambling and alcohol. But his handpicked Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq trumped Bhutto’s Islam card with his own more extreme version.The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a godsend to Zia. His hanging of Bhutto, imprisonment, torture and flogging of political opponents (including journalists), and crackdown on the media (censorship, newspapers forcibly shut down), were all overlooked as he allowed Pakistan to be used as the frontline state in the Afghan war. He resorted to heavy censorship, a restrictive media policy and indoctrination through the media and education systems in order to build consensus for the new security paradigm centered on ‘jihad’ and ‘strategic depth’.

Journalists vigorously resisted the dictator. Besides protest demonstrations, there were more subtle ways of dissent, like publishing blank spaces to alert readers that material had been censored, using pseudonyms (that had to keep being changed as the ‘agencies’ cottoned on to identities), and the art of criticising without being too obvious about it.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the fledging democracy that began to emerge after Gen. Zia’s death in 1988 found itself up against not just a security establishment now used to openly forming and implementing policy, but also its ‘strategic assets’, the trained, indoctrinated ‘mujahideen’ left over from the Afghan war who now turned their guns on Pakistan. The security establishment let them target people they considered a threat to their version of Islam as they were useful in order to bleed India over Kashmir. Since 9/11, this pro-Jihadi, anti-India policy has intersected disastrously with policies emanating from the ‘war on terror’.

Here are a couple of examples about journalists caught at the wrong end of this paranoia. In March 2006, security agencies arrested Geo TV reporter Mukesh Kumar Ropeta and cameraman Sanjay Kumar near the US airbase at Jacobabad in Sindh where they had rushed upon hearing a blast (later explained as a sonic boom). Ropeta and Kumar were kept incommunicado for three months, tortured and accused of being spies for India – an accusation apparently triggered by the fact that both are Hindu (and by implication, associated with, or having sympathies with, India). They were finally produced before the court in June, the same month that investigative journalist Hayatullah Khan’s body (shot to death, his wrists bound with government issued handcuffs) was found in North Waziristan. He had been abducted six months earlier,  after he reported that the death of Abu Hamza Rabia, an alleged Al Qaeda commander, was due to a US missile. His photographs of pieces of a US-made drone in the wreckage of the house destroyed by the blast gave lie to the government’s claims that the explosion was caused by inflammables in the house itself.

Incidents related to Pakistan’s involvement in the ‘war on terror’ have upped the ante for journalists, caught between the government secret services and insurgent groups. Nearly fifty journalists have been killed over the past decade, about twelve in the last year and a half alone, many of them victims of target killing, like Saleem Shehzad whose murder made headlines the world over. But the journalists killed in conflict-ridden Balochistan barely even merit small reports in the mainstream media, as the Baloch journalist Malik Siraj Akbar poignantly documents (‘Death is one Pakistani reporter’s constant companion,’ iwatchnews.org, June 3, 2011).“During the past nine months, I have lost six colleagues in the conflict. I spent time with all these journalists, working on stories, participating in training programs or developing source networks in the country’s largest province bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Family members and professional colleagues back home in Pakistan attribute the reporters’ targeted murders to state secret services and death squads. The authorities have not investigated or punished those responsible for these killings. Worse still, official pressure on media outlets has led to a complete blackout of the news concerning their deaths,” writes Akbar.

This intensification of conflict that journalists find themselves caught in makes the bad old days of the Zia era look good. But then it is necessary to remind ourselves that Pakistan is reaping now what the General sowed during those dark days. After Zia’s ignominious mid-air exit from the scene, journalists began facing an increase in ‘privatised’ violence by non-state actors, thugs strengthened during the military dictatorship. They barged into homes and offices of journalists (even the respected editor of the daily Dawn was not spared), sent live bullets and warnings to journalists, kidnapped and beat journalists. This was in addition to the threats by the secret agencies. At least four journalists were killed in 1990 alone, four narrowly escaped death, and three others were kidnapped. Twenty newspaper offices were attacked (‘The press in Pakistan is unwell”, Index On Censorship 7/1991).

Journalist friends in India sometimes express wonder at the courage of their Pakistani colleagues; some wish that the Indian media would stand up to, say, the corporate sector at home. The fact is that due to the almost uninterrupted political process in India (barring Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years), Indians have had a chance to build a consensus with the state and buy into the state’s security paradigm. Pakistanis on the other hand, have historically had an adversarial relationship with the state, leading to an often healthy scepticism. The phases of Pakistan’s political and media history identified below provide an overview that illustrates this.

1. 1947-58 – The formative years; Governor Rule: A Constitution was adopted, only to be abrogated within a few years. The media at the time, the Urdu daily Jang, the English daily Dawn and Radio Pakistan, toed a pro-establishment, pro-government line. Journalists’ arrests were part of the crackdown on all progressive forces in the early 1950s, as Pakistan tried to align with the USA –where the McCarthy era was then in full swing. Journalists suspected of Communist sympathies were fired and imprisoned (including my uncle Mohammad Akhtar and his colleagues, M. A. Shakoor, Eric Rahim, Ahmad Hasan, Tufail Ahmad Khan and Mihaj Barna).

2. 1958-71  – Army rule – Field Marshall Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan: the State controlled Pakistan Television, that started broadcasts in 1964, has remained very much ‘his master’s voice’. Along with a few newspapers and the government controlled Radio Pakistan, PTV reported only what the government allowed. This censorship was particularly evident when it came to the growing unrest in what was then East Pakistan. The news censorship and slanting was so extreme that even on Dec 16, 1971, when the Pakistan army surrendered to the Indian, the West Pakistan media was still predicting victory. An exception was Anthony Mascarenhas, the Goa-born, Karachi-educated journalist who had helped found the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the government-controlled news agency. In 1970, recruited by The Sunday Times, London, his reports on the happenings in East Bengal “profoundly influenced opinion in the outside world, and changed the course of his life”, as his obituary in The Times notes. “He and his family had to leave their home and all their possessions in Karachi. He arrived in Britain on June 12, 1971, and the following day his three-page story appeared in The Sunday Times. It was quoted all over the world and won him awards from IPC and What the Papers Say. But it also earned him the bitter hatred of Pakistan’s military regime, and for time he had reason to fear for his life.”

3. 1971-1977 – the Bhutto years: On December 20 1971, Army chief Gen. Yahya Khan resigned and handed over the government to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who took oath as president and first civilian Chief Martial law administrator of Pakistan. In April 1973, the National Assembly approved the new Constitution that had been accepted by most political parties. These years were marked by a sense of consolidation, nation building, and emerging from the trauma of 1971. General elections in 1974 brought Bhutto’s PPP to power amid allegations of rigging. These allegations fed into a wider discontent that Bhutto’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was able to exploit when he overthrew his erstwhile mentor in 1977.

4. 1977-1988   – Army rule – The Zia years: In 1977, Prime Minister Bhutto announced general elections one year before his term was up. Before the early elections could be held. Army chief Gen. Zia-ul-Haq imposed Martial Law and imprisoned Bhutto, whom he later hanged. The promised elections ‘within 90 days’ were never held. Gen Zia appointed himself President and made various changes to the Constitution, including various controversial ‘Islamic’ laws.. It was during these years that many of the developments mentioned above took place, of censorship, and journalists being imprisoned, flogged and tortured.

5. 1988 -1999 – Democracy ‘musical chairs’: After Gen Zia’s death in a plane crash in August 1988, it was as if the lid had been lifted off a pot on the boil. The ugliness cultivated and stifled during the Zia years came spewing out. The violence of the 1990s is well documented. The privatisation of violence mentioned above manifested itself in attacks on journalists by men with affiliations to various religious and ethnic parties. This decade was also marked by a veritable musical chairs of governments being elected and ousted, thrice through powers that Gen Zia had introduced allowing the President to dissolve the assemblies and send the government packing on various grounds. The first general elections in this period, held in November 1988 brought Benazir Bhutto to power – but with her hands tied behind her back, with the critical areas of defence, foreign policy and economy off-limits to her government. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed her government in 1990 and headed a caretaker government that oversaw fresh general elections three months later. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League was voted to power but dismissed in 1993. Another caretaker government supervised new general elections, which returned Benazir Bhutto to power. Barely a couple of years later, President Farooq Leghari (a PPP stalwart) dismissed the government and elections three months later ushered Nawaz Sharif back to power.

During Nawaz Sharif’s last government tensions between the media and the government hit a new high. There were by now several newspapers, in various languages. The ownership of the Urdu language Jang, Pakistan’s largest circulated daily with several editions, had started an English language newspaper The News, competing with the established, more staid Dawn. Tensions between the media and the government had been building up since the previous summer, coinciding with Nawaz Sharif’s announcement of the controversial Constitutional Amendment 15 (the ‘Shariat Bill’). The government was also irked by the planned launch of Geo, an offshore South Asian satellite channel backed by the Jang Group. “The government feels that the Jang Group is a monster in the making, with its move into the electronic media challenging the official monopoly on truth,” Imran Aslam, then Senior Editor The News, told me at the time.

Matters between the government and the Jang Group came to a head in January 1999 when Jang Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakilur Rehman at a press conference played audio tapes supporting his allegations that the government had been pressurising him to “sack and replace 16 journalists”, “support us in policy matters”, and “refrain from criticising the first family”. The startling revelations led to an unprecedented battle between the Government and the press. Newsprint supply to Jang, which had already been held back illegally by the Government stopped abruptly. The group’s bank accounts were frozen, affecting the 4,000-odd employees whose pay cheques were held up. The government filed a sedition case against Mir Shakilur Rehman. The battle continued until the government assured the Jang group unconditional access to its newsprint stores and bank accounts (details in my article, ‘Nawaz Sharif vs the press’, Frontline, Feb. 27 – Mar. 12, 1999). The quid pro quo for the government backing off appeared to be the Jang Group’s shelving of the Geo project at the time.

6. 1999-2008 – Army rule – The Musharraf years: Chief of Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted the Nawaz Sharif government in a coup and held controlled elections in 2002, in which no major political leaders participated. The Chief Executive of Pakistan as Gen. Musharraf styled himself, granted licenses to private television stations, including Geo. His relationship with the news channels soured during their coverage of the mass agitations against his dismissal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. When he imposed Emergency rule in November 2007, Musharraf banned several channels. Geo was the last to be allowed back on air several months later.

7. 2008 – democracy again (imperfect, but a step in the right direction): And so we come to the current phase, in which journalists walk a tightrope between the military and the militants, risking their lives as never before to get various versions of the truth into the public domain.

On the plus side, Pakistan is on the right track. It has a democratically elected government that is staying away from the vengeful policies of the past. However, the ‘deep state’ that columnist Kamran Shafi keeps reminding us of, continues to undermine freedom of information and freedom of the media. For many, the intelligence agencies and the militants they once trained and equipped are two sides of the same coin. Although officially Pakistan has rejected the ‘jihadi’ policy, the linkages built up between the military and the militants over decades may take time to disappear completely. The journalists who expose those leftover links do so at risk to their lives. Ironically, the first journalist to be killed for venturing into that murky terrain was not a Pakistani but an American, Daniel Pearl.

There are other ways to deal with pesky journalists, of course. On June 24, former Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan (during the Musharraf era) Sardar Muhammad Ghazi, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against journalists and media organisations for ‘defaming’ Pakistan’s armed forces and its top spy agency. He is arguing that the armed forces and the intelligence agencies are responsible for defending the geographical and ideological boundaries of Pakistan and that elements from the print and electronic media are “out to destabilize and de-nuclearise Pakistan.”

As Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists commented, “this suit is part of a wide range of efforts including threats, abductions, beatings, and killings (of journalists) that we have seen being dealt out at an increasingly frequent rate.”

It is also clear that having an independent media doesn’t always mean better, more mature public discourse. On the contrary, the ratings-driven ‘big media’, as elsewhere in the world, are more interested in news and talk shows that are sensationalist and fan conflict rather than promoting open, honest discussion and dialogue. The anti-American rhetoric pushed by certain sections in Pakistan (particularly the religious and right-wing political parties and the ‘agencies’) is also evident in the mainstream electronic media and their talk shows, dubbed by some wags as Pakistan’s ‘jihadi media’. While this may not change anytime soon, in recent months the rise in public awareness about political issues and the right to information has led to unprecedentedly open challenges to Pakistan’s traditional security paradigm and calls for accountability of the military. There is an increased highlighting and exposure of abuse, documented and made public by ‘citizen journalists’ or the ‘para-media’ as the Bangladeshi journalist Afsan Chowdhry termed the underground media of Bangladesh in the 1990s. Except that the current ‘para-media’ is not underground, anymore but very much in the open, on the Internet – with email, blogs, social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) and cell phones (readily accessible documentation tools that allow a lay person to take photos or videos and upload them to the Web). All this is also impacting public discourse as never before. The merging of these technologies and tools has led to a virtual (no pun intended) revolution that would once have been considered science fiction. All this has led to changes in the public discourse that the big media also picks up on.

In the final analysis, Pakistan is barely three years into the current phase. The direction it now takes will be critical to the situation of the media in coming years. If the current elected government completes its tenure, holds elections, and hands over power to the next elected government, it will be a first in Pakistan’s history. If that happens and the democratic political process continues over the years, one can hope that a democratic political culture will eventually prevail over the security state and the militants, allowing journalists to do their job with less risk to their lives.

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