In Pakistan, a murderous exercise in democracy

Covering political rallies in Pakistan must be considered a dangerous assignment. One journalist was killed and three others injured on Sunday when gunmen opened fire on a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rally in Khairpur in Sindh province. All told, at least six died and 10 were wounded critically.

Mushtaq Khand, 35, a 10-year veteran journalist, is survived by two wives and several children. Khand was a reporter for Dharti Television Network and had been the president of the Khairpur Press Club for the past five years. He had also worked for the Sindhi newspaper Mehran in Hyderabad. Journalists Mukhtiar Phulpoto, Allahdad Rind, and Faheem Mangi were reportedly injured, but news reports have not confirmed their journalistic affiliations or their condition.

Khand’s death is the first non-targeted killing of a journalist in Pakistan this year. CPJ documented three work-related journalist murders in 2012, and is determining the motive in another killing. All of the murders have gone unresolved.

What is also notable is that Khand was killed in the interior of Sindh province–not in Baluchistan, where a secessionist battle is raging, or in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan border where the Taliban remain a predominant political force, or even in Karachi, where political parties ruthlessly battle street-level turf wars.

After Khand’s funeral in his home village near Khairpur on Monday, his colleagues and friends demonstrated in front of the Khairpur Press Club, protesting against the government for failing to protect its citizens. Earlier, officials had announced that the government was giving large sums of money to the families of those who had been killed or injured at the rally.

Police also conducted overnight raids after the attack and arrested 10 unidentified suspects, though the alleged mastermind remains at large, local news reports said. News accounts are reporting different motives for the shooting. Investigators first blamed a family feud for the attack. Geo TV said the gunfire erupted after an argument between two rival groups at the rally, but that distinction might be too small in a country where family and politics are often inseparable.

PPP lawmaker Nafeesa Shah, who was scheduled to speak at the rally, blamed political infighting for the shooting. “The attack is aimed to keep party workers away from PPP leaders,” she told the Express Tribune.

Campaigning for the 2013 general elections in Pakistan is well under way. The PPP’s Khairpur rally was only one of several that day around the country. Earlier in the weekend, a peace march against American drone attacks organized by presidential hopeful Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party ended when the Pakistan army forced it to a halt in FATA.

Constitutionally, the elections are due to be held every five years, but the last one was held a little more than a month after its scheduled January date. If the voting comes off this time, it will mark the first time there has been a successful transfer of power from one civilian administration to another. But with the presidency at stake, this will be hard-fought, and it is entirely realistic to expect more election-related violence. Asking the government to protect journalists or demanding that it end impunity has proven largely fruitless over the years. So journalists, their editors, and the media owners must prepare for potential violence from any quarter. As these Khairpur killings demonstrate, even journalists who are not targeted are still vulnerable in Pakistan.