MEDIA-PAKISTAN: Pondering Risks Covering Conflict, Crime, Corruption

Journalists in Lahore protest reporter's murder in Rawalpindi. Photo: Rahat Dar

Journalists in Lahore protest reporter's murder in Rawalpindi. Photo: Rahat Dar

By Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Mar 28 (IPS) – The main issue before the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) meeting over the weekend in the central Punjab city of Faisalabad is the threat faced by journalists in this conflict-ridden South Asian country.

The cold-blooded murder of yet another journalist in Rawalpindi, twin city of the capital Islamabad, on Mar. 26, underlined the gravity of the situation.

Unknown assassins shot and killed Raja Asad Hameed, a reporter with the English-language daily ‘The Nation’ and its Urdu-language television channel Waqt, as he reached home that evening and was parking his car. His family rushed out on hearing the gunshots and found Hameed lying in a pool of blood.

The bullets, fired at close range, had pierced his neck and shoulder. Doctors pronounced him dead on arrival when he was rushed to the Benazir Bhutto Hospital, named for the late twice-elected prime minister who was herself assassinated in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, 2007.

Hameed is the third journalist to be killed in Pakistan since the beginning of this year.

Days earlier, Tariq Malik, 30, a reporter with Dawn News TV, Lahore, died after being shot as well as stabbed in an apparent street crime while resisting a cell-phone robbery on Mar. 23.

In February, Musa Khan Khel, a correspondent for Geo TV and its affiliated English-language daily ‘The News,’ was kidnapped and killed in the restive Swat Valley just as the government concluded a peace deal with Sufi Mohammed, the elderly hardliner they hoped would influence the Pakistani Taliban.

“This is the main issue before us,” senior Islamabad-based journalist C.R. Shamsie told IPS on the phone from Faisalabad where he is attending PFUJ’s biannual delegates meeting.

“We are already facing economic murder because the media owners have not yet implemented the seventh wage board award. Now our lives are threatened because of our reporting.”

“We are provided no life insurance, no training on how to deal with conflict situations, and no defence kits or other life-saving materials like journalists in the international media, the European journalists,” added Shamsie, a member of PFUJ’s federal executive council, former PFUJ secretary-general, and editor of the Urdu daily Azkaar’s Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore editions.

Asked whether the prevailing lawlessness provides a cover for attacks on journalists, Shamsie said, “Tariq was apparently killed in a street crime. But the real reason is possibly something else.”

Since the explosion in the number of private television channels over the past few years, the media has, Shamsie noted, “become a party to the fight” between political players – an activist role that many observers have commented on.

In his recent column for Dawn, respected analyst Irfan Husain commented on “the extent to which our media has become an active player in Pakistani politics and society”.

He listed several examples to prove his point and concluded that far from being a liberating force as many had hoped, the private channels have “worked to serve the opposite end by reinforcing existing prejudices, rather than challenging them. Owners of channels have their own concealed agendas, and poorly educated producers and hosts do little to separate opinions from facts”.

His observations tie in with Shamsie’s contention that “it is the young journalists who are being targeted and killed perhaps to send a message to the big TV anchors who have become players in the political field, stepping beyond their role of journalists… There is a need for democracy in the media also.”

Pakistan ranks 10th on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) ‘Impunity Index 2009’ in its report ‘Getting Away with Murder,’ that provides a list of countries where governments fail to solve journalists’ murders.

Murders make up more than 70 percent of work-related deaths among journalists, says CPJ. The index does not include cases of journalists killed in combat or during dangerous assignments such as coverage of street protests.

The Index, for which the media watchdog “examined every nation in the world for the years 1999 through 2008,” calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population. It includes only those nations with five or more unsolved cases. In 2008, 14 countries met these criteria.

Compiled for the second year running, this year’s Impunity Index report was launched Mar. 23, in Manila, “to mark the fourth anniversary of the murder of Marlene Garcia-Esperat, a Philippine columnist who reported on corruption in the government’s agriculture department’’.

She was gunned down in her home in front of her family “in a case that has become emblematic of the struggle against impunity,” says CPJ.

“Philippine journalists are clamouring for justice in at least two dozen unsolved cases, and they need government protection from the murderous thugs who are killing their colleagues year after year,” said Elisabeth Witchel, CPJ’s impunity campaign coordinator.

Iraq, Sierra Leone and Somalia top the Index in the first, second and third place respectively, but the report takes special notice of the worsening situation “in places such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan”.

Other countries on the list are Sri Lanka (4), Colombia (5), the Philippines (6), Afghanistan (7), Nepal (8) and Russia (9).

Last but not least, at number 14, is India, where Anil Majumdar, editor of daily newspaper ‘Aji,’ was shot dead in March in Guwahati, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

Last November, another Assamese journalist, Jagjit Saikia, was shot dead at point blank range. Saikia worked as a district correspondent for the vernacular daily ‘Amar Asom’ in Guwahati.

Daily newspapers in Imphal, capital of Assam’s neighbouring state of Manipur, ceased publication in protest after ‘Imphal Free Press’ sub-editor Konsam Rishikanta was shot dead on Nov. 17.

Journalists in Manipur are vulnerable to pressure from both local insurgent groups and state officials according to CPJ – a situation that journalists face in most conflict areas.

The failure to solve journalist murders perpetuates further violence against the press, noted Joel Simon, CPJ executive director in the report. “Countries can get off this list of shame only by committing themselves to seeking justice.”

South Asian journalists face particularly severe risks, with the region’s nations making up the bulk of CPJ’s Impunity Index: Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

There have been some particularly horrific high-profile murders in the region over the last few months, including the gunning down of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of ‘The Sunday Leader’ on Jan. 8 in Colombo.

Three days later, some 15 assailants stabbed to death print and radio reporter Uma Singh, 27, at her home in Janakpur in the south of Nepal.

The CPJ index notes that “even in wartime, journalists are more likely to be targeted and murdered than killed in combat. In Iraq, for example, murders account for nearly two-thirds of all media fatalities.” Conditions in Iraq improved in 2008, but authorities there have yet to solve a single murder case involving a journalist, notes the media watchdog.

Worldwide, the vast majority of victims are local reporters covering sensitive topics such as crime, corruption, and national security in their home countries, says CPJ.

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