In Pakistan, another journalist breaks his silence

CPJ’s report, Roots of Impunity, published earlier this year, provides a glimpse of the grim realities that journalists in Pakistan face when they cross red lines. Many journalists are threatened, harassed, and intimidated by a host of actors, including members of Pakistan’s security and intelligence apparatus. Some of these cases get reported, but in many instances journalists stay quiet to avoid further trouble. Almost every Pakistani journalist visiting CPJ tells me that he or she routinely receives threats.

However, we notice more journalists breaking their silence despite the intimidation.

Among the first, and perhaps most notable, was Umar Cheema, who was abducted in September 2010 by unknown assailants, stripped, beaten, and photographed in humiliating positions. Cheema’s unwillingness to stay silent received widespread attention, and may have ushered in a new strategy increasingly being used by journalists who are victims of such treatment: breaking their silence and letting the world know what was done to them.

During the course of research for CPJ’s soon-to-be-released annual census of imprisoned journalists, we came across another such case: Aqeel Yousafzai, a journalist and researcher at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, whose comments on conflict and militancy often appear in the media. Yousafzai recently told us he was taken into custody earlier this month and beaten in connection with his critical reports and views he expressed on-air.  

Here is an excerpt from the e-mail he sent to us, with permission to publish, which has been lightly edited for clarity:

“Peshawar police arrested me on December 2 when I was coming home. After arrest, they shifted me to a nearby police station which was also being used by ISI for some purposes. Police blamed me for not having an ID card but after an hour, a person who was without uniform approached me and told me that you were talking against state in radio and TV shows so we will see to you and “deal with you” tonight. He mentioned my comments on BBC, VOA and Geo News. Then I feared. Initially he introduced himself as a [officer-in-charge of the police station] but after some time, when I resisted, he told me that he is an ISI operative. He abused and tortured me for around 2 hours, and also hit me physically.

“Before his entry, I informed some journalist friends about incident so they contacted high ranking officers in order to protect me. After some time the real officer-in-charge called me but he [denied] that an ISI officer dealt with me earlier. It was a surprise for me. I spent 4 hours in custody. It was a painful process for me and my family. It was the 3rd attempt against me because I’m working on militancy from last many years and have published 3 books also…

“…I need to bring to your notice that what is happening with us in Peshawar, and you can raise a voice for us. I’m sure these guys will hit me again, because I’m not stopping my work and sharing my views, especially in the international media…After that bad incident, I received many threats on my cell phone, but I’m still here to perform my job and sharing my news and views:

“I request you please raise a voice for other journalists and resist such attitude of our state because we are helpless. Thanks again and again to contact me and sharing your sympathies.”

Aqeel Yousafzai

It’s too early to gauge whether this strategy of speaking out is effective or not. After all, Yousafzai continues to face threats even after going public about his ordeal. But we do know that keeping quiet does little to help Pakistan’s press.