ISLAMABAD— International human rights group Amnesty International has documented what it says is an alarming amount of violence and intimidation faced by the news media in Pakistan. Ayaz Gul reports that researchers say journalists face threats from the country’s intelligence services, political groups and militant groups like the Taliban.
In the report released Wednesday, London-based Amnesty International harshly criticizes Pakistani authorities for “almost completely” failing to stem abuses against journalists or to bring to account those responsible.
Amnesty says since the restoration of democratic rule in Pakistan six years ago, 34 reporters have been killed in attacks, but justice has so far been served in only one case. The group says many more journalists have been threatened, harassed, abducted, tortured or escaped assassination attempts.
David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, says virtually any sensitive story leaves Pakistani journalists at risk of violence from one side or another.
“Journalists in Pakistan are under fire from both sides and the report shows that the perpetrators of crimes against journalists, which are happening at an alarming scale, could be a wide range of state or non-state actors - so there is a real sense of journalists under siege in Pakistan," says Griffiths.
A number of journalists interviewed by Amnesty International complained of harassment or attacks by individuals they claimed were connected to the feared military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The report notes the intelligence agency “has been implicated in several abductions, torture and killings of journalists, but no serving ISI officials has ever been held to account - allowing it to effectively operate beyond the reach of the law."
Griffiths says that the government has promised to improve the dire situation for journalists but few concrete steps have been taken.
“A critical step will be for Pakistan to investigate its own military and intelligence agencies and ensure that those responsible for human rights violations against journalists are brought to justice. This will send a powerful signal to those who target journalists that they no longer have free reign. Without these urgent steps Pakistan’s media could be intimated into silence,” says Griffiths.
The ‘Mir’ case
The latest incident of violence against journalists happened in the southern port city of Karachi on April 19 when prominent political talk show host, Hamid Mir, was shot and wounded while he was on his way to the studio of his employer, Geo TV. Mir accused ISI's chief of orchestrating the shooting. For hours, the private channel aired the allegations that have been denied by Pakistan's military.
The military has now asked the government regulator to cancel the license of the country’s largest television network, a move that would force Geo off the air. The dispute has also encouraged dozens of other private television stations to launch an aggressive campaign against Geo, condemning it for blaming the ISI for the attack on Mir before authorities completed their own investigation.
Veteran human rights activist I. A. Rehman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan echoes concerns highlighted in Amnesty's report. Rehman also criticizes the divisive media battle sparked by the attack on Mir.
“We are extremely concerned and we feel that journalists are at risk in Pakistan and we also feel that they are not receiving protection (from the government). We are also extremely concerned at the signs of disunity in the media's ranks,” says Rehman.
In its report, Amnesty says Pakistani journalists are also victims of human rights abuses by non-state groups across the country. The group says aggressive competition means that powerful political actors across the country put severe pressure on journalists for favorable coverage. In the country’s largest city and commercial hub, Karachi, supporters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party and some Islamist groups are accused of harassing or killing journalists they consider critical.
Amnesty says that in conflict-ridden regions of Pakistan's northwest and the southwestern province of Baluchistan, the Taliban, militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and ethnic Baluch armed groups openly threaten reporters with death and attack them in retaliation for seeking to highlight their abuses or for not promoting their ideology.