Pakistani journalists offer funeral prayers for their slain colleague Saleem Shahzad in June. (AP/B.K.Bangash)
Pakistani journalists offer funeral prayers for their slain colleague Saleem Shahzad in June. (AP/B.K.Bangash)

Quantifying the threat to journalists in Pakistan

For many journalists working in Pakistan, death threats and menacing messages are simply seen as part of their job. But since December 2010, CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program (JA) has processed requests for help from 16 journalists in Pakistan who are dealing with threats. Others have told us of threats they have received in the event that they are attacked. 

Outside of JA’s caseload, we are aware of nine other journalists who have received death threats or menacing messages, usually by text message. These threats went beyond the usual level and were bad enough for the journalists to tell us about them. We have three “in case I am killed” messages in Bob’s e-mail inbox, set aside if the worst-case scenario actually comes about for these people.

Most of those threatened are men, but a few of them are women. Most work for Pakistani media, but some work for international news organizations. One is an Afghan journalist working in Pakistan. Since the brutal murder of Saleem Shahzad at the end of May, the rate of applications for assistance seems to have accelerated, but it is too early to tell if there is a real spike or just part of the rise in the Pakistan caseload we have seen in the past year or two.

Remember: The cases we are talking about are not all the journalists who have received threats in Pakistan. Our data largely reflects journalists who have reached out to us. In a few cases, we were told of a situation and we reached out to the person being threatened.

CPJ has assisted or is aware of Pakistani journalists living in other South Asian countries, Sweden, the UAE, and the United States, and we can’t help but believe that there are many more journalists outside the country that we or our international sister organizations don’t know about.

The journalists we have worked with say the threats have come from many quarters: the government’s military, paramilitary, and intelligence groups; both sides in the brutal escalating ethnic strife in Balochistan; militant groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, some of which operate on both sides of the border with Afghanistan; political factions and criminal groups fighting turf wars in urban areas, notably Karachi; powerful feudal leaders  who still predominate in rural areas; and, at times, the figures involved in bitter local disputes over land, water rights, political patronage, corruption, and even marital conflicts that a journalist has covered.

CPJ and other local and international groups doing similar work have developed an approach to this problem: We counsel journalists to make the threats they are receiving public, or at least to alert their employers and colleagues. We encourage them to register a case with the local police. If the situation seems dire enough, we tell them to consider relocating to another city for a while, and at times we offer them financial assistance to do that. We discourage them from viewing asylum in another country as the only solution, though have gotten some of them into three- to six-month training or professional development programs. Those who do find asylum somewhere often wind up marginalized, no longer able to pursue their careers in a foreign country. We have seen oppressive media environments in other countries drain them of their intelligentsia and don’t want to see that happen in Pakistan.

Some of the more accomplished journalists have been able to get into significant academic programs in Europe or the U.S., though for most of the people we’re dealing with, such programs are out of reach. Others, with the financial means, are able to move in and out of Pakistan as they perceive the threat level rising and falling.

Increasingly, we find it difficult for journalists to be issued visas into European, Scandinavian, or North American countries. For those who insist on leaving Pakistan, we find ourselves directing them toward countries that do not require visas for Pakistanis. CPJ and other groups have little influence over immigration authorities, though we do write letters of support for some of their applications.

With the government unwilling or unable to address the near-perfect level of impunity for those who kill or attack journalists in Pakistan, CPJ encourages our colleagues there to do more to organize to protect themselves. Media companies should continue to devise strategies of dealing with threats as well as attacks. Journalist trade organizations should ramp up their safety training for those who don’t have the benefit of being on the staff of a larger organization. And, in my meetings with the younger generation of journalists coming up, we are learning that many feel alienated from the established media houses and journalist organizations. These younger people will need protection as well. If they haven’t already, they will soon feel the same pressure their more established colleagues are struggling to cope with. The intimidation journalists face in Pakistan does not look set to end any time soon.