Representatives from 40 Pakistani and international press groups, development organizations, and media houses came together in Islamabad last week to discuss ways to better protect local journalists at risk of violence, and means to combat the virtually perfect record of impunity that assailants enjoy in this country. It’s none too soon. Three journalists have died already in Pakistan this year, and more than 40 have been killed over the past decade. About two dozen have been targeted for murder. On the eve of the March 6-7 conference, members of an ARY Television news crew were shot and beaten by thugs in Hyderabad. The attack attests to the dangerous situation in Pakistan where journalists routinely face threats from an array of sources; where reporters working on dangerous beats have little protection; and where law enforcement response to anti-press attacks is nearly nonexistent.
Can this climate of fear and injustice be changed through combined national and international efforts? That was the question posted to participants in the International Conference on Safety & Security of Pakistani Journalists. “Or have we decided we have failed?” asked Adnan Rehmat, director of Intermedia Pakistan, the event organizer.
The challenge goes beyond Pakistan, of course. The conference, supported by Open Society Foundation-Pakistan, International Media Support, UNESCO, and International Media Support, represents one of the first major steps conducted as part of the new U.N. Inter-Agency Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. What happens in Pakistan will be the first real test of the U.N. plan’s effectiveness on the ground.
The U.N. plan outlines more than 120 measures to improve safety and combat impunity through the coordinated responses of states, NGOs, media, and intergovernmental organizations. The plan will be deployed in Pakistan, Nepal, Iraq, and South Sudan initially, with countries in the Americas following. The plan was developed by the U.N. educational wing, UNESCO, in consultation with a range of groups including CPJ.
From the Islamabad meeting, two alliances were created, one national and one international. Local participants agreed to set up the Pakistan Coalition of Media on Safety (PCOMS) to promote a unified agenda on safety for journalists. A committee of prominent journalists that includes former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient Mazhar Abbas and Geo Television anchor Hamid Mir agreed to be the public face of the coalition. The International Friends of Media Alliance on Safety, a group of more than a dozen international organizations, including CPJ, will work in support of the Pakistanis.
The two groups will expand and strengthen programs already under way in Pakistan. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, for example, operates safety training programs, assists families of killed journalists in financial need, and is documenting government inaction in more than a dozen murders of journalists. Intermedia gives emergency help to journalists and is building up a legal assistance program, among other activities.
Building alliances requires debate, as it did in Islamabad. Journalists argued that media owners need to do more to protect staff and freelance contributors. “Those cameras you see are insured, but the people behind them are not,” said Intermedia’s Rehmat. A discussion of whether journalists should carry guns for their protection ended with the consensus they should not. “My computer and my voice are my weapons,” Abbas said.
Other proposals surfaced, such as seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor for the murders of journalist and creating regional safety centers. Representatives from other parts of the world outlined the strategies that have been used in their regions: Mexico, for example, federalized crimes against free expression; Colombia maintains a program that directly provides security to journalists at risk.
“The discussion ends, but the work begins,” said Guy Berger, director of freedom of expression and media development at UNESCO. Certainly much needs to happen for these proposals to succeed, but the conference laid the foundation. There was a hint of hope in Islamabad, as reflected in the tweet (#impunityPK) posted by Sadaf Baig of the Intermedia team: “Perhaps we WILL get somewhere soon.”
[Reporting from Islamabad]