See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Pakistan is near the bottom of the list in this year's Press Freedom Index

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
“The space for independent journalism has not shrunk in Pakistan, it has been taken away entirely,” Amir Zia, a former editor at The News, said at a conference to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day at the Karachi press club earlier this month.

According to the recent World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders: “Journalists are targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organizations and feared intelligence organizations, all of which are on RSF’s list of predators of press freedom. Although at war with each other, they are all always ready to denounce acts of ‘sacrilege’ by the media. Inevitably, self-censorship is widely practiced within news organizations.”

The report released on May 3 placed Pakistan on number 147 (12th from last) on its Press Freedom Index. “The Pakistani media are, nonetheless, regarded as among the freest in Asia when it comes to covering the squabbling among politicians,” it said. Last year, Pakistan was ranked 159th out of 180 countries.
More than 100 journalists have been killed since 2002

Pakistan has seen a transformation in its media industry in the last few years. Journalism expanded significantly with only a single state-owned TV channel in 2002 to 97 private channels today, of which 47 are news and current affairs stations, and 27 are in regional languages. After decades of a single state-owned Radio Pakistan, it now has almost 150 FM radio stations. And from 2,000 journalists in 2002, it now has 18,000 journalists, of which 12,000 are registered.

But this media expansion took place during the period in which militancy and terrorism also rose in the country. Therefore, they had little or no experience operating in dangerous conditions and there were no proper survival and coping mechanisms. As a result, Pakistan has lost more than 100 journalists to violence since 2002.

Before this period, violence used to be the act of last resort against journalists by threat actors, but now, sadly, physical harm is the tool of first choice for the attackers. Large parts of the country have become more or less no-go areas for journalists. Their movement is restricted on various pretexts. Journalists are routinely harmed, abducted, harassed, intimidated and psychologically broken down. Threats, not just to them but also their families and organizations, are commonplace.

What encourages these attacks to continue is the increasing deep-rooted culture of impunity in Pakistan. Out of the over 100 journalists killed between 2002 and today, the murderers of only two Pakistani and one foreign journalists have been arrested and prosecuted. All three cases are in the appeals stage. In other words, there has been no definitive punishments in even these three cases so far.

Hopes that the ‘Commission of Inquiry’ probing an assassination attempt on veteran journalist Hamid Mir will identify the perpetrators of the crime were dashed with the leaked findings of the three-member commission, – headed by Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali and including Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan and Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman – which believed that the assertions made by those who appeared before the commission “were essentially based on suspicions, assumptions or apprehensions and were in the nature of hearsay evidence, hence of no material assistance to the commission in determining the culpability of any individual or organization, particularly in the face of affidavits/statement filed by the concerned officials in rebuttal.”

It was the second high-profile judicial commission probing an attack on or a murder of a journalist. Another such commission had failed to identify who had kidnapped and killed Saleem journalist Shehzad in 2011.

The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a commitment to protecting journalists and media houses in 2014 while meeting a delegation of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Islamabad. He did take small measures, such as ‘panic buttons’ for media offices in Islamabad and engaging the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists on special legislation for its members and their organizations’ protection.

Amid global concerns about safety of journalists, the Finlandia Declaration on May 4, 2016, is expected to be a major step forward, making journalists safety part of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, to “promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies, which includes among other things journalists’ safety.”

In Pakistan too, safety concerns cannot be fought by one stakeholder alone. There is a need for a multi-stakeholder, collaborative approach by journalists, media houses, the government and the civil society. Special laws on journalists’ safety and protection by federal and provincial governments have to provide a legal framework to start convictions and punishments.

But these laws may not be enough if media organizations continue to avoid adopting safety protocols to help their journalists, media assistants and other staff members minimize the risks they face while doing their professional duty. Journalists too must comply with these principles to stay safe while reporting from dangerous or conflict areas. Unless roles and duties are defined clearly, safety and security audits will be difficult to carry out inside any media house. And in the absence of any special laws, these protocols should include the journalist’s right to say no if he or she is not adequately trained, equipped and insured to take any assignment involving a high degree of risk.

If these measures are not taken soon, we will soon reach the proverbial state of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil’.

The writer is a veteran reporter specializing in journalists’ safety