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Threats and attacks against press amid political crisis in Pakistan

A protester enters the newsroom of the state-run Pakistan Television which was stormed on Monday. (AFP/Aamir Qureshi)

The ongoing political crisis in Pakistan turned deadly over the weekend with three protesters dead and at least 500 wounded in the capital, Islamabad. As is often the case, the press was not spared from violence, with dozens of journalists covering the rally injured by police or protesters, according to news reports and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

On Sunday, protesters pelted stones at and damaged the offices of the privately owned Geo TV and struck a Geo News satellite van with batons, the channel reported. Early Monday, protesters armed with sticks stormed the headquarters of the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) and harassed staff, damaged broadcast equipment, and cut cables, leading to a temporary block in transmission, according to news reports. Although the army eventually brought the situation under control, the ability of anti-government protesters to get inside a building the military was apparently guarding prompted some to question the army's role, the BBC reported.

For nearly two weeks thousands of protesters, led by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, have been camped out in Islamabad, after a march to the capital to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over allegations of electoral fraud, a charge he denies. Government officials believe the protests are backed by the country's powerful military establishment, according to reports. The military, which has been at odds with the Sharif administration on a range of issues since his election last year, has led several coups in the past, one of which removed Sharif from power in 1999. Already, the military has pressured Sharif to relieve control of foreign policy and security issues according to government aides, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Several journalists covering the anti-government protests for outlets including ARY News, Aaj TV, Samaa TV, and Geo have come under attack, as we noted earlier.

Against this backdrop of unrest, last week we documented death threats against freelance columnist and retired army officer Kamran Shafi, who had been critical of the anti-government movement and military. Ansar Abbasi, investigative editor at the privately owned The News International also received a death threat from the same email account, using the name "Khaki Power", around the same time. The News is part of the Geo/Jang group--which has been labeled anti-establishment and traitorous by many Pakistanis loyal to the military since the attack on Hamid Mir, an anchor and columnist for the group.

The threats in Shafi's case did not end there. Today, he received another threat from a different email address, albeit the same and seldom-used domain name, telling him: "And make no mistake, you can be bumped off with 1 phone call giving it a 'go'. Traitor. You dont deserve to breathe air in this country nor walk it's [sic] soil."

To read the full threat sent to Shafi click here.

Similar threats have been sent to several other journalists. Omar Quraishi, the editorial pages editor for the privately owned Express Tribune, received the following disturbing message from the same email account that sent the latest threat to Shafi:

From: "SSG" <[email protected]>
Date: 29 Aug 2014 11:20am
Subject: Notice
To: <
[email protected]>
Cc:

Quraishi - consider this your ONE and ONLY notice. Watch your mouth. If you utter rubbish again, I will personally see to it that you leave this world covered in your own urine.. begging for forgiveness. How does that sound? Shut your mouth or I will gladly shut it for you for ever.

Quraishi told CPJ he believes the threat is in connection with recent tweets, in which he has been critical of the military and of supporters of the campaigns led by Khan and Qadri.

On Sunday, Ahmad Noorani, an investigative journalist at The News, also received a death threat from the same e-mail address.

Threats against journalists in Pakistan are never to be taken lightly. CPJ research shows that at least half of all journalists murdered in the country were threatened before they were killed.

Pakistan's advanced surveillance capabilities, recently highlighted by Sohail Abid, from local internet rights group Digital Rights Foundation, should be capable of tracing the source of these threats. Commentators including Shafi, have questioned how threats such as the ones made against him can go untraced by the country's powerful intelligence agencies.

Even before the current political crisis, Pakistan is one of the deadliest places for journalists. On Friday, 28-year-old Ihsan Ali, an assistant to the bureau chief of the Urdu-language Mashriq, a privately owned daily, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in Mardan district--a case we are currently investigating. Last week, three employees, including journalist Irshad Mastoi, were shot dead at the Quetta offices of the independent news agency Online International News Network.

Sadly, amid this political crisis, views in the media have become polarized, and rivalries and infighting have reached new levels. Independent and critical voices are suffering at a time when the public needs them more than ever in Pakistan. Until the Pakistani media can achieve some level of solidarity they have little hope of combating the risks of being a journalist, CPJ research shows.

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