Pakistan’s Silenced Press

By Bob Dietz
Committee to Protect Journalists

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January 8, 2007
The Wall Street Journal Asia
(c) 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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As the Taliban embed themselves deeper into Pakistan’s restive provinces along the border with Afghanistan, journalists covering the region are coming under attack and driven away from a story with global consequences for the U.S.-led coalition fighting militant Islamists.

On December 19 in Quetta, Baluchistan, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall and her Pakistani photographer Akhtar Soomro were assaulted and harassed. Ms. Gall and Mr. Soomro were in Quetta seeking interviews with Taliban foot soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban uses the province and its capital as a staging area for their attacks over the border. Ms. Gall says her attackers claimed they were from the government’s Special Branch but did not show identification as they forced their way into her hotel room and assaulted her. Mr. Soomro, who they assaulted before Ms. Gall, has yet to identify his assailants. Instead, he returned home to Karachi and has not spoken publicly about the events.

While attacks on Western journalists are uncommon in Pakistan, the attack on the Times team is typical of what has been happening increasingly to Pakistani journalists. Virtually all the incidents have gone unexplained and apparently uninvestigated by the government.

Many Pakistani journalists are intimidated and reluctant to speak publicly about their attackers. But the few incidents that have been made public follow a similar pattern.

Mehruddin Mari, a correspondent for the Sindhi-language newspaper the Daily Kawish in Sindh province was grabbed by police and held for four months. The government refused to comment on the case during and after his detention. Mari told the British Broadcasting Company that he was interrogated, beaten, and subjected to electric shocks in an attempt to make him confess ties to the Baluch nationalist movement — a regional militia that has waged a protracted conflict with Islamabad.

A three-person delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, met with dozens of journalists in Islamabad and Peshawar last July and heard numerous complaints of government abuse. CPJ met with government officials after the high-profile slaying of tribal journalist Hayatullah Khan in June. Khan had embarrassed the government with pictures of the apparent remnants of a Hellfire missile that killed a senior al Qaeda commander, Abu Hamza Rabia, in North Waziristan, along the Afghan border. Khan’s pictures contradicted the government’s claim that the explosion came from a bomb in the house, rather than a missile fired by U.S. forces at a target in Pakistani territory.

Hayatullah Khan was the eighth journalist to be killed in Pakistan since the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, according to CPJ research. The Pearl case has been the only case investigated competently and reported. Pakistani journalists deserve the same attention. Government officials promised to make public all information they had on our lengthy list of unexplained cases. Now, almost six months later, they still have no explanations.

Talk to officials in Pervez Musharraf’s government and you will hear how the media are freer now than they have ever been. And while there has been an explosion of television and radio stations in a country with an already well-established print tradition, a pattern of brutal attacks is silencing those journalists who pursue stories that make the government uncomfortable.

As Mr. Musharraf’s government balances its precarious domestic political position and its fight against militant Islam, it is Pakistan’s journalists who are increasingly terrorized. Today, many Pakistani journalists fear their government’s intelligence agencies more than any Islamic militant.

Mr. Dietz is the Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.