Since making me aware of threats to Hamid Mir on December 20, Umar Cheema and I have been encouraging Pakistani journalists we know who are under threat to step forward with their own experiences. Ghulamaddin, producer for Samaa TV in Karachi who broke the story of students held in chains at a seminary, is coming forward today. (Like many Pakistanis, he uses only one name).
With seven dead this year, five in targeted killings, Pakistan tops CPJ’s list of the world’s most deadly country for journalists, just as it did in 2010, when eight died. That’s a dangerous environment in which to treat threats lightly.
Cheema and I are convinced that widely publicizing threats is one of the best tactics to disarm them. But it is a difficult call to make. Unlike Mir, not everyone has a high enough profile to draw the wide publicity needed to disarm the situation, if indeed such situations are ever fully disarmed. It can even further antagonize the groups making the threats. Waqar Kiani found that out in June — see our alert, “Pakistani reporter beaten for reporting earlier attack” — when he told the world of his 2008 abduction, only to be beaten again.
In 2010, Cheema set a standard when he spoke frankly and widely of his harrowing, ugly experience at the hands of a group of men he is convinced worked for the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate. A highly publicized series of special investigations into his abduction and beating all melted away with no substantive action being taken. Given the state of political disarray in Pakistan, maybe that’s to be expected when government actors are suspected of being the perpetrators.
But it’s not only the state security apparatus that threatens journalists, as we often point out. They are under threat from all sides. Ghulamaddin is an example. He and Samaa TV colleague Mohammad Aatif Khan broke a local story that got global coverage. For a while now, the pair have been reporting in Karachi about, as they describe it, overt child sexual abuse, the open sale of police uniforms, a pervasive culture of bribery in the public sector, a gang of female drug peddlers, extortion — the list goes on. Ghulamaddin says he and Khan have had to face ugly reactions and threats from various groups in past, but this time it might be worse. With Ghulamaddin’s permission, I’ve lightly edited his message. Here is his story:
My name is Ghulamuddin and I am a senior news producer for Samaa TV. With my colleague Mohammad Aatif Khan, an associate news producer, we produce investigative reports that uncover corruption, mismanagement, mafia-type groups involved in extortion and drug peddling, and more. We are based in Karachi.
On December 13 Samaa aired our exclusive report on students being held in chains at a seminary. The story jolted Pakistani media and drew an immediate response from the government. The subsequent crackdown by police led to the rescue of over 50 shackled boys and young men from the madrassa’s basement. Dozens more were released from another room. It is still difficult to gauge the brutalities that were being perpetrated on a massive scale at Dar-ul-Uloom Zakria Kandholi under the supervision of Mufti Daud, but the story drove a heated debate among officials, diplomats, human right groups, and normal Pakistanis around the country.
The seminary is located on the outskirts of Karachi and the abuse was first of its kind to be exposed in the history of the metropolis. Authorities arrested Qari Usman, the madrassa’s caretaker, and some others, but Mufti Daud and other administrators managed to escape.
The visuals captured by our hidden camera were a shock, and the miseries faced by the students in confinement were a clear violation of their human rights. Our story went global and in Pakistan news channels and newspapers rebroadcast the story from Samaa’s programming and aggressively entered into the race for headlines with explanations and analysis.
And that’s when our troubles began: The moment our story went on air, a large number of unknown callers threatened newsroom staff who were answering the phones, demanding the station drop the story. To their credit, station management gave the threats no heed.
But extremist groups managed to get the personal details of Khan and me, including our home addresses, contact numbers, and our daily work schedules. Their first step was to intercept my brother in-law outside my residence. The group described me and demanded that he go into my home and hand me over to them.
My family and I weren’t home — we got there 10 minutes later — and we managed to avoid the group. I told the station manager about the incident, and they told me to relocate immediately. But harassment by the groups still continues. They waved a pistol at a woman living in my neighborhood, demanding she tell them where my family and I had moved.
As the tension grew, I deactivated my Facebook account, and tried to remove as much as I could from the online record of my phone numbers and other ways to trace me. But the reality is that the network of extremist groups offended by our story is very strong and our lives are in danger anywhere in the country.
Given these highly stressful circumstances, I am living in hiding in Pakistan. My wife and our six-month old child are with me, all because I produced a story advancing human rights and freedom.
For my colleague Khan and our families, it is a stark reality that the entire state of Pakistan remains a silent spectator as we and others in the journalists’ community face such threats as we go about pursuing our jobs. As it stands now, we are considering the option of seeking asylum outside our country as the only way of avoiding being butchered by the groups pursuing us.