Like the grimalkin, bitter, evil and old are the forces that lie behind the threats to free speech in Pakistan. These forces threaten teenage girls like Malala and veteran journalists like VOA reporter Mukkaram Khan Atif. The threats are more severe and more frequent. Brave journalists do still continue to report the issues, but they often do so knowing that they are placing their lives on the line. The culprits meanwhile operate with almost complete impunity.
“If you ignore what we say, you’re picking a fight with us,” said the intimidating voice. “We will come for you again.” Mukkaram Khan Atif had been threatened and followed before, but these calls were becoming more and more regular at the time I began to meet with him in Peshawar in 2011.
Khan held strong views on journalistic freedom, but was nonetheless feeling the pressure. “It’s so hard to know something and not report about it. I feel dishonest when I do that. Thank God I don’t have children to worry about if I am killed,” he told me, his tone a mix of sorrow and relief. “And I surely know they will win, because they are armed and I am not.” Still, Khan continued to do his job.
On January 17, 2012, the Pakistani Taliban shot and killed Mukkaram Khan Atif during Friday prayers.
Khan’s murder sent a message to other journalists in Peshawar and across the country. It was a message from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP): Report on us, and we will kill you.
A similar message was sent with the killing of Saleem Shahzad, whose reporting exposed the connections between al-Qaeda and the ISI, naming Navy personnel and their proximity to al-Qaeda. The Inter-Service Intelligence has been implicated in his death, although the agency denies any involvement. The truth may never be known: The commission set up to investigate his murder concluded only that the culprit could not be named. This despite emails and statements by Saleem’s close friends and human rights groups he had alerted before his murder, pointing to the involvement of Pakistani intelligence services. This impunity sent another message to journalists: Take on the State, you will be killed and your killers will never face justice.
Since Shahzad’s assassination, nobody else has been able to report on the interactions between state and non-state actors that continue in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the attacks continue. In the last few weeks alone, three high-profile journalists have been targeted.
Among them, the attack on Hamid Mir has created a huge media storm, with Mir’s critics accusing him of overly abrupt finger-pointing. Although the attack did raise some important questions about the ethics of his employer, GEO News, the overall climate of censorship remains the overriding issue.
As an intelligence officer once jokingly said to me when I was investigating Saleem Shahzad’s murder in 2011, “One voice muzzled, silences a lot of noise” (Urdu:“Aik ka mun band karo, saraa shor kam hojata hia”).Although the remark was off the cuff, it was a chilling insight into the psychology of Pakistan’s intelligence community, and indeed into the mindset of the forces that threaten journalism in the country today.
Pakistan remains one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, and impunity for the attackers remains almost absolute. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) records 54 journalists killed since 1992, of which it defines 30 as having been murdered, 28 with impunity. The only two journalists whose murderers have been charged are the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and more recently GEO news reporter Wali Khan Babar. However, very reliable sources who were close to the investigations tell me that the actual murderers are still at large.
A recent report from Amnesty International gives 34 journalists killed since March 2008, and at least eight murdered since the election of Nawaz Sharif. For his part, Sharif has pledged that he will find a solution to the attacks on journalists, yet recent weeks have been some of the deadliest for journalists in the country’s history.
Many – although not all – militant groups take credit for their attacks on journalists. It is, however, altogether more difficult to investigate the involvement of political, military or intelligence forces, when the state is involved in intimidation. Even when the media is being intimidated by non-state actors – banned militant groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group behind the Mumbai attack), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (responsible for recent sectarian violence), Sipah Sahaba, the Pakistani Taliban, and factions of Al-Qaeda such as Jaish-e-Osama – many journalists believe the state benefits. And even if it is militants who are responsible for the attacks, the government is failing in its duty to preserve a free press. Rather than doing their job, Pakistan’s security forces are demanding that media groups be shut down.
A silenced press has broader implications. For instance, journalists are kept out of North Waziristan, where the U.S. has been concentrating its drone strikes. Washington says these strikes are killing mostly militants, and are nearly always effective operations. Islamabad claims that large numbers of civilians – including children – are being killed. The two governments present very different numbers. Without journalists to investigate, who is to say where the truth lies?
Censorship has always been present in Pakistan, but it is the impunity with which journalists are intimidated, attacked and killed that is the most immediate concern. The climate of fear becomes more oppressive with each year. The media is not the cause of this, but collectively it must be part of the solution. Pakistani media organizations need to come together and pressure the government to hold the culprits accountable. This would be a first step. For its part, the state needs to stop taking umbrage at every accusation and start earning trust by investigating and holding accountable the forces of intimidation.
A free media is not only critical for Pakistani society; it has an essential role to play in the regional fight against terrorism and militancy. After all, how can Pakistan be considered a player in the fight against terror, if as a state it cannot preserve one of the pillars of its own democracy?