A legal attack accompanies assault on Pakistani journalists

Concerned that so many Pakistani journalists have been threatened, abducted, killed, or beaten recently? So are they. When I was in Karachi and Islamabad in late April and early May, I found that they are starting to take steps to protect themselves with increased safety training and protective gear at the larger media houses that can afford it. Freelancers and journalists who work for smaller media organizations or are stringing in rural areas or conflict zones will need more help in getting access to that sort or training and equipment, though.  

There is also talk of organizing a quick-response support system for journalists who receive threats. It will be set up along the lines of the Citizen-Police Liaison Committee that was effective in Karachi in the 1990s in combating a wave of kidnappings of wealthy businessmen. The idea is not a done deal by any means, but is an idea getting some attention. The challenge is for Pakistan’s highly competitive media organizations to act together to increase the threats they are facing from many different quarters.

Last year, Pakistan was the deadliest country for journalists to work in, and now, with five dead at mid-2011 from bombings and targeted killings, the trend seems at a pace to be as bad or even worse in 2011.

These responses are ramping up as a combination of the country’s growing instability from economic stagnation and widening inequality, a faltering civilian government unwilling or unable to assert its authority, and a disintegrating security situation–which are made worse by the spillover from the Afghan war and the changing tactics on the parts of most of the combatants in the Pakistan-Afghanistan theater. 

Not a pretty setting for anyone practicing journalism, but they will now have to look beyond flak jackets and mutual help organizations. Apparently, they should lawyer up too, because here comes a new legal assault. Sardar Muhammad Ghazi, a former deputy attorney general in the previous government of General Pervez Musharraf, filed a petition Thursday in the Supreme Court to get specific media organizations and journalists to stop criticizing the country’s military and intelligence agencies. Ghazi’s suit said: “The pen pushers and anchor persons are spitting venom against the ISI and the armed forces,” Pakistan media reported Friday.

The lawsuit asks the court to lay down guidelines to protect those institutions from “baseless allegations and criticism” launched with “male fide” (bad faith) and is an indicator of just how deeply the criticism is cutting.

In addition to calling on the Information Ministry and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (which is responsible for controlling TV and radio broadcasters) to assert their authority, the suit names analyst and talk show anchor Najam Sethi (a winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1999, by the way), Capital Talk’s television host Hamid Mir, the Geo TV Network as a whole, the publisher and editor of Daily Express Tribune in Islamabad, as well as Ejaz Haider, who recently wrote an open letter to ISI chief General Shuja Pasha.

“The anchorpersons and the writer jointly and severally are trying to run down the army generals and as such their command stands eroded in the eyes of the force being commanded by them,” the complaint said.

For many media organizations, but definitely not all of them, outright criticism of the military and intelligence establishment is relatively new. A combination of the insecurity across the country, several embarrassing attacks on a naval base in Karachi in April and May, the ease with which American troops were able to carry out their onsite assassination of Osama bin Laden in early May, has given critics reason to look at the military in a new light, questioning its policies and its privileges.

The harsh reality is that this suit is part of a wide range of efforts including threats, abductions, beatings, and killings that we have see being dealt out at an increasingly frequent rate.