Pakistan’s journalists abandoned by the courts

Jan 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Uncategorized

This week marked a dark day in the history of Pakistani journalism. The last refuge of justice in our country closed the door to the journalist community, and sent a message loud and clear that Pakistan’s journalists have no rights when faced with threats from powerful quarters. We are referring, of course, to the judicial whitewashing of the murder of Saleem Shahzad.

It is ironic that so much has been made lately of Article 19A, the right to information, which should be a shield of protection for journalists in a nation with a supposedly free media, and yet it is apparent that the right to expose who is murdering journalists in this country and why has been set aside for reasons unstated. Rather than exposing the Saleem Shahzad’s killers and sending a message to those who would threaten and kill other journalists, the judicial commission instead found no culprits, only suggested a payment of Rs3 Million to Shahzad’s widow. Now we know the value of a journalist in Pakistan – about the cost of two Corollas.

Writing in The News today, senior journalist and former secretary Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) Mazhar Abbas notes that journalists are effectively on our own.

“The authorities are not taking the issue seriously enough, particularly in cases where the “intelligence agencies” come into the equation. Therefore, Pakistani journalists need to fight their own cases with the effective support of their unions.”

This state of affairs has serious consequences not only for the lives of individual journalists, but for the security of the nation itself. Director current affairs at Dunya TV Nasim Zehra on Thursday proposed that “a vibrant media can thwart a coup” by ensuring that,

…the moves of all power players — government, politicians, army, and now the judiciary — are examined for historical precedents, legality, constitutionality, double standards; and whether they are based on individual, institutional, party or national interests.

Unfortuantely, Nasim’s theory is based on a false premise. Media cannot scrutinise the moves of all power players. Yes, Dunya TV will courageously repeat worn out conspiracy theories about Husain Haqqani while he sits behind heavy security, but following the judicial commission’s failure to find anyone responsible for the killing of Saleem Shahzad?

Having seen that a prominent reporter can be killed with no consequences for those involved is sure to have a chilling effect on the profession. Will those who report critically on the military refrain from doing so in the future for fear that they may end up in a ditch somewhere? The commission has also shown Mr Shahzad’s killers, whoever they may be, that they can operate with impunity.

It is not only Saleem Shahzad who has been killed for reporting information that someone did not like. Zahid Qureshi was tortured and mutilated for his reporting. Umar Cheema was kidnapped and tortured when he reported information that upset someone. Kamran Shafi had his family home strafed with gunfire and received threatening phone calls warning him to stop reporting information that some didn’t like. Samaa TV’s Ghulamuddin and his family have been forced into hiding in their own country. Recently, Hamid Mir has received threats for his reporting. Najam Sethi, who has been the subject of what appeared to be a coordinated campaign of harrassment continues to receive threats for his reporting.

Journalists are not powerless, though. We have the ability to ask difficult questions and press for information that most people are unable or unwilling to. While the nation’s attention is planted squarely on the court, we should take the opportunity to ask, “What about Saleem Shahzad?” What about the rights of the people to information that is supposedly so inalienable? Demanding these answers will not only protect the lives of journalists, it will protect the life of the nation. There are murderers among us, and they must be exposed.

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