Is Media Freedom a Cruel Hoax?

Jun 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Censorship

media muzzleIn 2009, Kamran Shafi’s home was strafed with gunfire after he was warned not to report about security agencies. In 2010, Umar Cheema was abducted and tortured. Umar Cheema was lucky – he survived. In 2011, Saleem Shahzad was abducted and tortured to death, his body dumped on a canal bank in Mandi Bahauddin.

None of the perpetrators of these attacks have been caught, but in each case suspicion has fallen on members of national agencies. In the latest incident involving Saleem Shahzad, Senior Researcher Human Rights Watch Ali Dayan Hasan again suspects the invisible hand of security agencies.

Human Rights Watch says it was able to establish that Shahzad was being held by the ISI. “We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI,” says Hasan. Those interlocutors, he adds, had received direct confirmation from the agency that it was detaining Shahzad. In any case, Hasan says, “in a high-security zone like Islamabad, it is only the ISI that can effect the disappearance of man and his car without a trace.”

Human Rights Watch was also told that Shahzad was supposed to return home on Monday night. “The relevant people were informed that his telephone would be switched on first, enabling him to communicate with his family,” says Hasan. “They were told that he would return home soon after.” But by 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Shahzad had still not been heard from. At that point, Hasan recalled that Shahzad had sent him an e-mail on Oct. 18, 2010, that was to be released in the event of his disappearance. At the time, says Hasan, he was “fairly sure that sooner or later something was going to happen.” Human Rights Watch says it has made repeated attempts to contact Pakistan’s government and establish Shahzad’s whereabouts, but has received no response.

Nor can this suspicion be considered as part of a political agenda of one media group against the government since each of these journalists worked for different media groups. The only thing linking them was their willingness to investigate and report on the workings of the agencies.

Intelligence agencies have long been considered to use media as puppets in internal battles and for shaping public opinion about national issues, and suspicions about involvement in vote rigging and supporting political parties to influence the national direction have also been long held. Like the case of abduction and torture of Umar Cheema, though, investigations into these suspicions always result in a dead end.

As the nation has begun to demand answers related to issues of national importance including the Abbottabad case and the attack on our naval base in Karachi, confusion has been reigning supreme in the media. From bizarre and condradictory headlines on the front page of major newspapers, to the spread of conspiracy theories from propaganda rings associated with ex-officials.

Now that Saleem Shahzad has had his life stolen, the question has moved to the forefront of people’s minds, and the eyes of the world are focused on the national intelligence agencies. However, it should be noted that as yet other than anecdotal evidence and suspicions, there has not been proof made of the intelligence agencies being responsible.

But whether or not agencies are responsible, the current sentiments point to an important quesiton – Can the media be truly free if there is a fear that journalists live under threat for reporting on sensitive topics?

An independent investigation must be carried out not only to obtain justice for Salmaan Shahzad which is of course the first priority, but also to lift the weight of uncertainty about safety for journalists in the country. If national agencies are not involved, that needs to be shown by more than only the word of the agencies themselves. If the agencies are not responsible, they need to be cleared so that journalists can continue their work without being silenced by the “chilling effect” of living under the fear of harm.

On the other hand, if some member of a national agency acting either under orders or as a rogue element has been harassing and threatening journalists, these should be exposed and removed from their positions so that the agencies can no longer be considered a threat to media freedom.

Whoever was responsible for the death of Saleem Shahzad, the abduction of Umar Cheema, the shooting at Kamran Shafi house – these individuals cannot continue to go unknown if we are to truly have a free and independent media. Media freedom requires more than spreading sensational rumours and slandering politicians. If certain holy cows remain off limits to honest and objective reporting, then media freedom is nothing but a cruel hoax.

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