Thursday, May 1, 2014

KATE ALLEN - Don't ask questions in Pakistan

You can judge a society by how well it treats its journalists. This adage often applies to prisoners, but the sentiment is apt - freedom of the press is a key barometer for the wider freedom of a country. And at the moment, this spells bad news for Pakistan. Between January and March five journalists were killed in the country, although this doesn't include the numerous assassination attempts, kidnappings, and threats reporters have faced.

The picture painted in a new Amnesty International report out today is a bleak one. Journalists are being censored through assassination. Less than a fortnight ago, a particularly high-profile attempted killingbrought the crisis into the spotlight. Hamid Mir is a very popular political talk show host in the country, with an extremely high profile – Pakistan’s Paxman, you could say. He works for the largest private broadcaster in the country, GeoTV. On 19 April he was shot three times by gunmen in Karachi. The bullets striking his intestines, leg and pelvis. He survived, and has gone on to accuse the feared military spy agency - the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) -  of the attack.

The ISI has denied any involvement, but alarmingly, the government has now made moves to close down GeoTV. The entire episode is a chilling reminder of the ever-present threat of violent censorship that hangs over media enterprises, as well as individual journalists.

Mir is not alone in pointing the finger at the security services. Numerous journalists interviewed by Amnesty complained of harassment or attack by individuals, they claimed, were connected to the ISI. While some are featured in the report (with their names changed), others couldn't even be included under a false name, because they feared too much for their lives.

From the detailed research in ‘A bullet has been chosen for you’: Attacks on journalists in Pakistan', there emerges a clear patternof methodical harassment. It begins with threatening phone calls. Then, those who persist with reporting on sensitive national security topics – like alleged links between the military and the Taliban, or security lapses – eventually face harassment, abduction, torture, and even assassination.

This is not some sort of hot-blooded striking out in a fit of passion, but a cold and calculated system of censorship; if journalists won’t shut up, they will be shot up, and put in the morgue. It’s not only the security services who attack journalists who write what they don’t like. Journalists in Pakistan are caught between a rock and a hard place. Military groups like the Taliban have killed journalists they think have stepped out of line. One of the darkest ironies is that when a journalist is killed, it can be hard to know whether they were killed by the state, or the state's opponents. Mir said in a statement yesterday that he had been threatened by "both state and non-state actors" in the run-up to the attempted murder.

Despite the wave of violence and attacks, the Pakistani authorities have singularly failed to hold perpetrators to account. In the overwhelming number of cases researched by Amnesty, the authorities didn't adequately investigate threats or attacks. This adds to the sense that there is no price to pay for dispatching an unwanted journalist. Saturday is World Press Freedom Day. Hamid Mir will be spending that day in a hospital bed, from which he has vowed to continue his investigations into his suspected attackers. 

That sort of bravery is humbling. It must now be matched by concrete action from the Pakistani government to investigate his attack and the others like it. For once, it is they who should feel the pressure of a deadline.