MEDIA FREEDOM: Sorry Plight of Pak Journalists

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The world celebrates Media Freedom Day on May 3. Democrcay thrives in a country where an independent and vibrant media safeguarding the rights of the people. But the scenario is different in Pakistan. Media organisations and journalists are under attack from all sides in Pakistan. Journalists were shoty dead, kidnapped or thrashed up even at a Press Club for doing their job ..writes Manzoor Ahmed

A Pakistani boy wears a mask painted with national flag color for the upcoming independence day celebration at a roadside stall in Lahore, east Pakistan, Aug. 8, 2015. Pakistan will celebrate its 69th anniversary of independence on Aug. 14.
A Pakistani boy wears a mask painted with national flag color for the upcoming independence day celebration at a roadside stall in Lahore, east Pakistan, Aug. 8, 2015. Pakistan will celebrate its 69th anniversary of independence on Aug. 14.

Independent media never had it so bad in Pakistan as at present. It not only faces the onslaught of extremist forces in the country but also bears the brunt of the state repression. Since the judiciary and the police are already compromised, journalists have no way out of the all-out effort on the part of the state and its extremist agents to silence them.

The episode which highlights the state of fear under which the media has been working in Pakistan is the disappearance of a woman journalist, Zeenat Shahzadi in August last year. She was a local reporter for Daily NaiKhaber and a TV channel called Metro News. She was picked up by unknown persons believed to be from the ISI without any warning or notice or warrant and kept in illegal custody for over six months now. She was on her way to office in an autorickshaw.

 Pakistani policemen attend a passing out parade in southwest Pakistan's Quetta
Pakistani policemen attend a passing out parade in southwest Pakistan’s Quetta

Shahzadi’s crime was to pursue a case involving an Indian engineer jailed in Pakistan for espionage by the military court. The young engineer, Hamid Ansari, went missing in the tribal areas in 2012 when he crossed over from Afghanistan to meet a girl he loved. He was captured by the Taliban and later handed over to ISI. Ansari was then tortured, confession of being a spy extracted and sentenced to imprisonment by the military court.

Shahzadi was intrigued by the human drama involved in the case and wanted to probe the case. There was a detailed coverage of the case and the statement of Ansari’s parents in the Indian media. Shahzadi decided to report on the military court proceedings and thereby stirred the hornet’s nest.

It is not yet known whether Shahdazi was threatened verbally by the military and in all probability it did. In earlier cases, and there are countless, journalists have been openly threatened for reporting against the army, some shot at blatantly, others abducted, tortured and killed or terrorised into silence. Many have fled the country in fear.

Shahdazi, obviously did not pay heed to the warnings and went ahead with her journalistic pursuit. She went even beyond the call of her duty as a journaliseta and as a concerned human being, she decided to help the wrongly imprisoned Indian . It is known that Shahdazi had filed an application with the Supreme Court’s Human Rights Cell on behalf of the jailed Indian’s  motherFauzia Ansari. Not only that she had secured a special power of attorney from her and pursued the case in the

The military was of course not amused by these actions of the brave young journalist and chose to silence her—one fine day, she just “disappeared“. No one knows how and by whom. The only fact is that she did not return home, nor was she seen in public again since then. In Pakistan, , 68 persons have similarly “disappeared` in the past month alone`. In months and years before, the number of “disappeared“ persons has been in hundreds, mostly Baloch, Sindhis and Pashtuns who dared to challenge the military and the state against atrocities and gross human rights violations.

The trauma Shahzadi’s family has been going through came out in the opoen when one her younger brothers, Saddam Hussein, committed suicide. He was close to his sister and was depressed by her disappearance.

The Pakistan Human Rights Commission recently took notice of the continued disappearance of the woman journalist and the increasing number such disappearances and said the government of Nawaz Sharif must investigate her disappearance and make public the reason for her continued illegal detention. In a statement, the Commission said: “Disappearance of Shehzadi is shamelessness. Now a 24-year-old woman has been picked up without a warrant. Is this the new trend to pick up young women? We want to know what her crime was and why she is missing without a warrant?”

Shahzadi’s case is only one of the several events in the recent past which underline the grave threats faced by independent journalists and media houses in Pakistan. The state has been silencing journalists brutally for years now. The list of disappeared, abducted and killed journalists has been lengthening over the years. Independent international media associations and watchdogs have termed Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in. Not only are Pakistani journalists are under constant monitoring and threat but so are foreign journalists. Indian journalists have had a rough time in the past several years with many forced to return home. Correspondents affiliated with international media houses have had their homes and offices raided and deported by the military for reporting fairly on matters which are uncomfortable to the military—read Balochistan, terrorist groups and India.

Now the Deep State has launched its proxies to target the media houses openly. This collusion became clear recently (March 2016)  when extremist policeman, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged for killing Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Thousands of extremist group members, supporters of Qadri, came out into the streets and held major cities like Islamabad and Rawalpindi to ransom. Their primary target was the media. They were angry at the media houses for labelling them as extremists and their “hero“ Mumtaz Qadri as a killer.

he Pakistani national flag waves at half-mast at the Balochistan Provincial Assembly

In Karachi, a group of 70-80 persons, all claiming to be Qadri supporters, stormed the Karachi Press Club and attacked journalists, smashed cameras and tried to set the club and television vans on fire. This happened on March 27. Roughly three weeks back, on March 4, a similar band of thugs had attacked the Hyderabad Press Club.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), condemning the attacks, said:  “The situation the media in Pakistan continues to face is raising serious concerns for the local and international media community. The systematic attacks are only further weakening the media environment and press freedom in the country, and creating unstable working conditions for journalists. The failure of the authorities to take action and address to entrenched culture of violence continues to enable future attacks.”