In Pakistan, anti-press attacks spread beyond border

The death of a journalist in Karachi last week shows that violence in Pakistan is occurring well beyond the border areas with Afghanistan. On Thursday evening, Pakistani television reporter Wali Khan Babar was executed shortly after airing a report on gang violence in the city. 

Pakistan was the deadliest country in the world in 2010, according to CPJ data. At least eight journalists were killed on the job last year, six in suicide bombings or militant strikes, and two in targeted assassinations. The country ranks 10th on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are regularly slain and the killers typically go free. At least 12 journalist murders have gone unsolved over the past decade.

With Babar’s death drawing international attention, I took part in a panel discussion on Voice of America’s Urdu service on Thursday evening. One of the other guests was presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar, who, speaking in Urdu, said that CPJ’s impunity claims were inaccurate, and that attacks on journalists are regularly investigated.  After the translation of Babar’s remarks, I was cut off by a station break and never got a chance to offer a rebuttal. But whatever investigations the government claims it is conducting, it has a near-perfect record of failure: no convictions in 12 of 13 journalist murders over the past decade.

Soon after the broadcast I got a message from Umar Cheema, who had been abducted, beaten, and humiliated over the weekend of September 4-5. 2010. I’ve tracked his case closely and I asked him about the investigation into his case. Cheema is a well-known journalist, and the widespread outcry that followed his abduction forced the government to say it would conduct two investigations, one by a Joint Investigation Team and the other by the National Assembly Judicial Commission. The former has been inconclusive; I’ll let Cheema describe how the latter is going:

“I’m under constant threat, as are my family members. My well-wishers advise me not travel alone and experience also tells me not to. The last time I was chased, on the night of December 22, 2010. It was third incident of this kind since my abduction and torture. My phone is constantly tapped and I feel constantly under surveillance. My professional contacts avoid talking and meeting with because they don’t want to be seen as related to me by the intelligence agencies.

“As for my case, there is no progress. The PML-N [the oppositon group Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] has been pushing the government to make public the judicial commission’s report. Chaudhry Nisar Ahmad, the opposition leader in the National Assembly, has raised this issue eight times on the floor of the House and Interior Minister Rehman Malik promised eight times to put the report before the national Assembly, but it has never happened. Motions submitted by the opposition lawmakers for a debate on my incident have been killed twice in the National Assembly’s Speaker Chamber.”

There are reports today that authorities are making dozens of arrests in Karachi (Babar was one of 17 people killed on Thursday, part of the violent story he was covering at the time.) Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Pakistani media there is a plan to institute a partial curfew in the city, but it hasn’t gone into effect yet. There has been no word on an investigation into Babar’s murder.