A few days after our CPJ delegation met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and secured commitments to combat threats to journalists in Pakistan, I sat down with reporters from the country’s most restive regions, who described in detail the conditions in which they work.
The risks these journalists take to report the news is staggering. Yet they have no one to call when they are threatened, because the authorities are either indifferent or impotent. Iftikhar Firdous, from the national daily The Express Tribune, told us that earlier that week a bomb had been defused in front of a colleague’s home in Peshawar. He described how journalists are squeezed between government dictates against reporting on banned, armed groups on the one side and threats from those groups to give them coverage on the other: “There are two options– the graveyard or jail.”
This was not the only alarming development following our meeting with the prime minister. The International New York Times is published in Pakistan as in insert in The Express Tribune. As I read the paper over breakfast on March 21, I was shocked to observe a giant white space on the front page where Carlotta Gall’s hard-hitting piece on the Pakistani government’s relationship to Al-Qaeda had been excised. Then on March 28, gunmen in Lahore attacked journalist and commentator Raza Rumi, killing his driver. Express News, reeling from several attacks in recent months, has kept pressure on the government by continuing to report every development in the story. With no apparent police action, on April 3 a subcommittee in the National Assembly ordered the Punjab police to present an investigation report on the Rumi attack within 24 hours.
In our meeting we provided Prime Minister Sharif with a series of recommendations, and a list of 25 priority cases to investigate, nearly all of them murders. We were impressed with Sharif’s lack of defensiveness. He recognized the scope of the crisis and the damage that this nearly unblemished record of impunity has done to Pakistan’s international reputation. Sharif proposed the creation of a joint commission of government representatives and journalists to address the problem. We were also impressed with the serious follow-up we had the following day at the Ministry of Information. That meeting included about a dozen people, among them Nazir Saeed, secretary of the Ministry of Information Broadcasting & National Heritage, and Hassan Mangi, director-general of the Ministry of Law, Justice, and Human Rights.
Based on these meetings, we have produced a summary of Pakistani government commitments with time frames for action. We have circulated the list to diplomats, media leaders, NGOs, and top journalists. We have asked that they follow up directly with the Pakistani government to ensure that the commitments made to us are met. We will of course follow up ourselves, and periodically make public our assessment.
You might think that in the current environment, journalists would be cynical about the prime minister’s promise to support the media. But those with whom I met were not. While they recognized that the government exercises limited control in their regions, they said that a clear expression of support and concern from the highest level was deeply meaningful precisely because they needed to feel that their work of informing the country–and the world–was valued.
But given the depth of the country’s press freedom crisis, the Pakistani government has a limited time frame to produce some tangible improvement in the lives of the country’s beleaguered journalists. If it fails to make good on its commitments, the glimmer of hope we witnessed during our recent visit could quickly turn to despair.