Attacks on the Press 2007: Asia Analysis

Amid South Asian Conflict, Remarkable Resilience
By Bob Dietz
Traffic is sparse during a late-night run to the Bandaranaike International Airport north of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Because of insecurity caused by war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil separatists in the country’s north and east, the streets are given over to police and army checkpoints. On this September night, the air still foggy from the day’s monsoon, reporter Iqbal Athas rides in a rental car, on his way to catch a Thai Airways flight that would take him to Bangkok. An award-winning defense columnist for the English-language Sunday Times, Athas is leaving the country for his own safety: His recent reports on arms sales irregularities have drawn threats, harassment, and, on one occasion, an unruly mob of protestors outside his home. “The harassment and threats have come and gone in the past,” Athas says, “and I have to assume they will again.” He would return to Colombo in less than two weeks.

In Pakistan, Mazhar Abbas walks out of the Karachi Press Club to find a single 30 mm bullet inside an envelope taped to the windshield of his car. Several other journalists walk with him in the fading daylight of this May evening. Two of them find the same “message” waiting when they reach their own cars. The group returns to the club and drafts a statement to be distributed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), which Abbas leads as secretary-general. Afterward, most of the journalists go home, but Abbas decides to return to work at the Agence France-Presse office where he serves as bureau chief.

Pakistan turned 60 in 2007. Sri Lanka will mark the same anniversary in 2008. Former British colonies, both are fraying democracies, passed over by Asia’s economic surge in good part because of internal strife. They have swung between periods of misguided rule and political upheaval since they were born. Sri Lanka is considered one of the world’s most politically unstable countries by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Pakistan is ranked 12th on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the world’s 32 failed states.

Yet in each country, the press, flawed as it is, has survived to serve as a vital forum for free expression. In Pakistan, the media consistently ranks as the most trusted institution in the country. Eighty percent of Pakistanis say they trust the press–a rating higher than that of any other institution, including the judiciary and the military–according to an October poll carried out by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based research group affiliated with the Republican Party. The IRI did not conduct a poll in Sri Lanka, but the media’s commercial success indicates its importance to the public. While the government controls many broadcasting and publishing operations, there are about 20 privately owned stations and close to 20 privately owned newspapers, most of them dailies. They are avidly consumed.

The conflicts in Sri Lanka and Pakistan are very different, of course, and each country’s news media operate in distinctive ways. But the experiences of Iqbal Athas and Mazhar Abbas, both of whom are internationally recognized senior journalists and CPJ International Press Freedom Award winners, provide a window into how the press has persisted, even thrived, in both countries.

They also point to the surprising strength of the press in the region as a whole. Throughout South Asia, amid civil and military turmoil, journalists have shown remarkable resilience and, in many instances, striking displays of professional unity. In Nepal, journalists played a lead role in rallying public opinion against King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev when he audaciously seized power in February 2005, ultimately forcing him to cede control to parliament 14 months later. In Afghanistan, several dozen broadcasters and more than 400 newspapers continue their work despite conflict between Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered government, militant Islamic groups, warlords, and drug cartels. And in Indonesia, the news media confronted and outlasted the authoritarian Suharto regime to become one of the freest in the region.

September was a tense period for Iqbal Athas and his family, but things had been worse. In February 1998, five armed men, including two air force officers, forcibly entered the family’s home, pointed a loaded automatic pistol at Athas’ head, and threatened him, his wife, and their 7-year-old daughter. Neighbors said there were some 25 armed men waiting outside the house. The family stood their ground, and the intruders left without seriously harming anyone. Athas had recently published a series of exposés on corruption in the Sri Lankan military.

This time, the threats followed his investigation into irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. Immediately after the article appeared, the government withdrew the security detail it had posted around Athas’ house after earlier threats. Strangers started following him on the street. A placard-carrying government rent-a-mob demonstrated outside his home. A gunman went to the Times‘ office and threatened the journalist who was about to translate Athas’ MiG article for the Sinhalese-language Lankadeepa, the largest-selling morning daily in Sri Lanka. In translation, the article would have had far greater reach and caused the government much more embarrassment.

As he makes his way through ticketing at the airport this September night, Athas stays in touch with his friend and editor at The Sunday Times, Sinha Ratnatunga, by text message. Athas will continue to write his defense column for the Times from outside the country, and soon enough, he’ll be back home. The intimidating phone calls, the surveillance, will continue. “The harassment and threats have never been worse,” he’ll say later.

Fourteen Sri Lankan journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work since 1999, making the country one of the deadliest in the world for the press. The Athas case is, in many respects, an anomaly. Most of the slain journalists in Sri Lanka were Tamil, a minority ethnic group in a majority Sinhalese nation, and their deaths have come in the midst of a 24-year-old civil war. The government’s tenuous cease-fire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came undone in 2006 and daily fighting resumed. Not unsurprisingly, the five journalists killed for their work in 2007 were Tamils. Three were killed in a Sri Lankan government air strike.

N. Vithyatharan publishes two Tamil-language dailies, Uthayan and Sudaroli. For 23 years, Uthayan has been printed in Jaffna, the heart of the Tamil secessionist fight, and the staff has learned to cope with the conflict’s ebbs and flows. At one point, the paper had about 20 staff members, but the number is down to five or six, with some living in the paper’s offices because they fear going out on the street. When newsprint runs short, Uthayan has appeared on brown wrapping paper. There is an ancient, hand-fed Heidelberg letterpress standing by should the paper’s offset presses be sabotaged. And diesel fuel, always in short supply, is stretched by mixing it five-to-one with vegetable oil to run the paper’s generators during the frequent power blackouts. Jaffna has changed hands between Tamil secessionists and the Sri Lankan military several times, and Uthayan has incurred the wrath of both sides. Vithyatharan says he is proud of his paper’s position and its editorial integrity. Tamil newspapers have long been characterized as practicing partisan journalism, the sort of one-sided reporting bound to draw fire. Vithyatharan disputes this notion. Instead, he says, these newspapers represent the “aspirations of Tamils” in the same way The New York Times represents an American viewpoint.

Sri Lankan journalists have survived with the support of professional organizations, according to Sunanda Deshapriya, who runs the Free Media Movement (FMM), one of five organizations that between them represent almost all of the nation’s reporters. The FMM is a small operation with a wide reach, largely because of Deshapriya and his staff’s commitment and energy. His office on a dusty side street near the United Arab Emirates embassy compound is up a narrow second staircase on the second floor, a small ill-lit room, the sun partially blocked by a large window-mounted air conditioner fighting a battle with Colombo’s heat and humidity. In addition to the FMM, there are the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, and the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union. Their titles reflect their separate ethnic interests, but they have grown increasingly supportive of one another in recent years, due in part to FMM’s work.

Pakistani journalists, are well organized, too, and they have been for years. Beneath the all-encompassing PFUJ, all major cities and many smaller ones have journalist unions and press clubs. When times are good, the press clubs serve as meeting halls where guest speakers discuss topical issues. When times are bad, journalists seek refuge and support in these same halls.

And journalists do come under frequent attack. In Pakistan, the army steps onto center stage every decade or so, using civil unrest or political ineptitude as an excuse to take control. Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 power grab marked the fifth time the military had seized power in 52 years. And when the military is not in power, dynastic political families feud over the spoils of patronage. Since independence, every legislature has been dominated by fewer than 50 prominent land-owning families. The two principal figures to emerge to challenge Musharraf’s ragged military-backed government were Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, former prime ministers from powerful families whose governments were recognized for their corruption and ineptitude. After Bhutto was assassinated in December, her son was named leader of her Pakistan Peoples Party.

Maybe it is not surprising that Abbas is part of something of a dynasty, too. In May, several journalists, including Abbas and his two brothers, Zaffar (a former BBC correspondent and now a senior editor at the daily newspaper Dawn) and Azhar (Dawn TV’s executive director), were identified as “enemies” by the Mohajir Rabita Council–an ethnic political group in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh–because of their reporting on political unrest. The PFUJ called the announcement a “hit list.”

The incident was only one in a string that continued throughout the year. Mazhar Abbas could barely tear himself away from Pakistan to make it to New York to accept his 2007 International Press Freedom Award from CPJ in November. In the eight months before he received his award, the government had, among other things, assaulted journalists, swept them up twice in groups of more than a hundred, threatened newspaper owners, and invaded printing plants.

Soon after the bullet threat, Abbas left Agence France-Presse to become the news director at ARY One World TV. It was a promotion, a move to a new medium, but it was not an end to his problems. Not long after he started his new job, ARY was kept off the air for more than two weeks after Musharraf shut down all independent broadcast channels and declared a state of emergency on November 3. Before allowing the stations back on the air, the president forced broadcasters to agree to a new “code of conduct” that made it a crime to criticize the presidency or the military. The crackdown was part of a long-term pattern of attacks on the Pakistani media. Seventeen journalists have been killed in Pakistan in direct relation to their work since 1992, 12 of them in premeditated attacks and nearly all of the cases uninvestigated by the government.

Despite this deadly violence and legal harassment, the news media are very much alive in Pakistan–a country where the journalism stands out, Abbas says, “because of the struggle of the journalists.” After Bhutto’s assassination, TV stations defied aspects of the new code of conduct, resuming some live coverage and reviving many of the call-in political shows whose critical commentary had so angered Musharraf. Far from being daunted, the press provided aggressive and exhaustive coverage of the slaying.

Media freedom shrinks and grows in Pakistan, as it does in Sri Lanka and other South Asian nations. The changes can be rapid, depending on leaders’ ambitions, the state of the economy, or a worsening security situation. But the media’s persistence, resourcefulness, and cohesion have often formed a bulwark against attacks.

Journalists in countries under duress realize that a free and open society is something grander than journalism. They also know that without journalism–even when it is flawed, or biased, or self-censored–a free society cannot truly exist. Power-obsessed politicians know that, too, and that is why in Pakistan and Sri Lanka they have tried to suppress the media. That these politicians have not fully succeeded should give us hope. Failed governments have come and gone. Their executives, legislatures, and judiciaries are easily and regularly corrupted, but South Asian journalists have persevered to uphold a higher ideal.