Mission Journal: Finding a legal solution to siege of Pakistan’s media

Pakistan’s media, long under siege, face new challenges. “We had managed to get the genie out of the lamp,” was the way one Pakistani journalist explained it to me during a trip there last month. “But now, the military has pushed it back in and I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get it out again.”

With the assassination attempts on prominent journalist Raza Rumi in March 2014 and Geo TV’s Hamid Mir in April the space to report openly and critically that journalists had expanded in recent years–that genie in the lamp–has rapidly shrunk. A year-long legal, financial, and physical assault on the Jang/Geo group of media companies (of which Geo was the major revenue earner) has left the company with a much smaller market share, while competitors have scuffled with each other to grab what they could of the once-mighty Geo’s audience. A series of attacks on the Express Media Group only deepened the sense of siege for media houses.

The recent offensives against militants along the Afghan border, while apparently widely supported, has meant restricted coverage and stifled criticism of the military. And the flow of threats directed at journalists emanating from all players on the political scene–the military and its intelligence agencies, militant groups, entrenched political parties, and run-of-the-mill corrupt local leaders–remain at high levels, CPJ research shows. The decision to revive capital punishment and establish military counter-terrorism tribunals for the next two years, a move approved by the Supreme Court, has worried many reporters. They told me they fear if they are deemed unsympathetic enough, they could wind up being tried in a military, not civil, court–despite reassurances from the military that this will not happen.

On a trip to Islamabad and Karachi in January, I found that solidarity between journalists in the field and newsrooms appears as strong as ever. The working press lays the blame for the lack of unity on media owners and their compliant managing editorial staff for having fractured the industry, journalists I spoke to said. And while the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed good intentions to assist journalists, it has proved ineffective in implementing meaningful policies to address the threats and violence directed at journalists from all sides of the political spectrum.

While Pakistani media have always been competitive, especially the broadcast sector, the lack of solidarity between media houses has not always been the case. In 2007 about 10 news managers met and worked out voluntary guidelines to standardize live coverage of terrorist situations after government anger over gruesome coverage. Those rules rose out of coverage of a lengthy hostage standoff at a mosque in Islamabad in July of that year. That sense of cooperation and joint responsibility seems to have all but disappeared.

Following the December 16 Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, in which more than 150 people, mostly children of military officers, were killed, the military has ramped up its offensive against the Taliban and other militant groups. Print and broadcast reporters told me they feel they have no option but to report the military’s claims of sweeping victories. Independent coverage of the fighting is not permitted and embedded reporters, whose reporting is censored by the military, are the only journalists allowed near the action, they said. Local reporters readily admitted to self-censorship, telling me they feared retribution from militant groups and the military.

The gruesome aftermath of the Peshawar attack was broadcast widely, and it is not unfair to consider it a watershed moment for Pakistanis, the equivalent of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001 in that it galvanized public anger at the terrorists. In the aftermath, some journalists find themselves torn between resentment of the military’s media coverage restrictions and a sense of patriotism as the military tries to reverse the trend of non-stop violence that has been the reality for so many years in Pakistan.

When I visited newsrooms and spoke with reporters and editors in late January, I found that last year’s attacks on media houses–none of them investigated, none prosecuted–had left some print and broadcast staff demoralized. If your concern is personal safety and a life free of threat, it’s seldom been a good time to be a journalist in Pakistan. The country is one of the most dangerous democracies for journalists in the world, and there is near-perfect impunity for the killers of journalists, according to CPJ data.

Journalists who dare criticize the military, militant groups, or entrenched political parties, work under a constant cloud of threat. Add into that mix the escalating ethnic strife between Sunni and Shiite groups and the government’s inability, after a year-long effort, to enforce peace in Karachi, the country’s largest city, and you have a recipe for political mayhem in which it is increasingly dangerous to work as a journalist.

All this despite a government administration that, unlike its predecessors, readily admits it has a journalist safety problem. When the Committee to Protect Journalists met Prime Minister Sharif in March 2014, our delegation came away with a sense that the government was committed to addressing a range of the problems besetting journalists. A year later, despite several pronouncements, there has been little change. No prosecutions of journalists’ killers, no addressing the threats they receive on a daily basis. The government has proposed some legislation, but it has not made it past the legislative committee level.

Is there a positive side to all this? A solution? Maybe. My reason for going to Pakistan was to attend a two-day meeting on a proposed law to offer journalists some degree of protection. The sessions were organized by the Pakistan Coalition on Media Safety (PCOMS), a broad-based group of journalist organizations and media houses, as well as Pakistani and international nongovernmental and U.N. organizations. There were scores of us, meeting to critique a draft law–The Protection of Professionals Engaged in Journalism Act 2015–which had already been presented to relevant groups around the country. The next steps will be to incorporate our input and then to move closer to a final version. The step-by-step approach is necessary to come up with a viable, publicly supported bill that will eventually offer journalists clearer protection.

The impetus for the draft law arose out of the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Because of its terrible reputation, Pakistan was one of five pilot countries identified to try to implement the plan. In March 2013, Pakistani journalists jumped at the opportunity to use the leverage of the U.N. to address the violent climate in which they have to operate. Surprisingly, Pakistan has emerged as one of the leading nations to use the U.N. plan as the basis for those attempts. CPJ’s 2014 report, “The Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity in the Killings of Journalists” is the best reference to understand the mechanisms to successfully address the problems of killings, threats, and impunity.

While there are plenty of laws in Pakistan’s constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press and speech, and plenty guaranteeing citizens’ safety and security, there is no law explicitly guaranteeing the safety of journalists. Given the important role of journalists in a democracy, especially one as precarious as Pakistan’s, the feeling is that relying on piecemeal laws has not worked. With the passage of the Protection of Professionals Engaged in Journalism Act, Pakistan could emerge as an international front-runner in attempts to effectively protect journalists.

There were no illusions at the meeting in Islamabad that mere passage of a law would bring an immediate halt to the violence and threats. But having such legal backing could stiffen the resolve of the legal system to begin to bring to justice those in Pakistan who believe killing a journalist is a solution to addressing media coverage they don’t approve of.