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For Pakistan's unprotected and threatened journalists, can new legislation make a difference?

Despite the government's promises of new legislation aimed at protecting journalists, groups that have been lobbying for journalist safety in Pakistan are worried that the bill fails to address the scale, context, and complexity of impunity of crimes against journalists and media workers.

Pakistani journalists holding an image of their colleague, Ahmed Noorani, condemn the attack on Noorani, in Karachi, Pakistan, 30 October 2017
Pakistani journalists holding an image of their colleague, Ahmed Noorani, condemn the attack on Noorani, in Karachi, Pakistan, 30 October 2017

AP Photo/Shakil Adil

Ahmed Noorani, a Pakistani reporter, was ambushed by six men in broad daylight at a busy intersection in the capital city Islamabad on October 27, 2017. His assailants arrived on motorcycles with iron rods and without license plates. Noorani and his driver sustained multiple injuries in the attack.

"I can say with the assurance that comes from over three decades of journalistic experience that Noorani's attackers will never be found, let alone punished," wrote Abbas Nasir, a well-respected journalist and former editor for Pakistan's oldest newspaper Dawn, in a column from his home in Spain.

The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) has recorded 73 instances of journalists or media workers being killed for their work since 2002. Many more have been threatened and attacked like Noorani. The Committee to Protect Journalists database shows that at least 33 journalists in Pakistan have been murdered in retaliation for their work since 1992. According to the Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), only five murder cases have been taken up in judicial courts with three ending in convictions.

In Pakistan, journalists and media workers face threats from criminal gangs, political groups, militant organizations, and the country's own police and intelligence agencies. Similar to trends around the world, attacks on journalists can include assault, murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation, and illegal detention.

Two days before the attack on Noorani, the current government had announced that the first ever bill for the safety and protection of the journalists in Pakistan will be released "soon."

Groups that have been lobbying for journalist safety in Pakistan worry that the bill fails to address the scale, context, and complexity of impunity of crimes against journalists and media workers in the country. They have not seen the latest version of the bill, but have seen earlier drafts.

"Several similar promises have been made in the past but the previous drafts circulated for consultations with stakeholders fell far short of effectively addressing the issue of safety or impunity, but instead imposed significant restrictions on media freedom and independence," said Owais Aslam Ali, the Secretary General of the Pakistan Press Foundation.

"The attacks on the journalists have continued and escalated for the past 17 years because the attackers know that there would be no consequences for these murders," explained Asad Baig, the Executive Director of Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD). "The draft bill the government is proposing fails to address the cause of the issue and what it offers are just after-the-fact cosmetic measures".

The scale of impunity

Two weeks before the attack on Noorani, the journalist Haroon Khan was shot eight times in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The militant organization Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility in an email. The Khyber Union of Journalists remains concerned that the local police were misdirecting the murder investigation to a family land dispute.

In June, Bakhshish Ilahi, the Bureau Chief of an Urdu newspaper, was gunned down on his way to work. Members of the media are convinced that he was targeted for his work.

On February 12, Taimoor Abbas, a cameraman with Samaa TV, was shot dead when his team arrived at the scene of an attack on a police station in Karachi. The attackers opened indiscriminate fire on Samaa's live news broadcasting van.

"Taimoor Abbas' murder while reporting underscores the grave risks Pakistani journalists face reporting on the effects of political violence, particularly from secondary attacks," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "Reporters should exercise utmost caution when approaching the site of an attack."

Of the 73 journalists who have died in their line of work, almost half have been as a result of dangerous assignment or crossfire.

Abuses uninvestigated and unpunished

Pakistan's judicial court system is overburdened and weak, investigators rely heavily on witnesses they cannot protect, and the country's forensic science is in its infancy.

The PPF has proposed legislation that would create special prosecutors at the federal and provincial level and make investigations and prosecutions of the crimes against media prompt, impartial, and independent.

MMfD believes that a special prosecutor's model will not be effective in Pakistan. They've proposed the formation of a statutory body with jurisdiction over crimes against media, independent of mainstream law enforcing bodies and authorised to conduct speedy criminal investigations into incidents through special investigators.

It is a complex problem, and any solution will likely have to be equally multifaceted.

The complexity of Pakistan's climate of impunity

Noorani, the journalist who was attacked on October 25, is a reporter for The News, a leading English language daily, and had been covering the legal troubles of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's family following the Panama Papers leaks. The case eventually resulted in Sharif's ouster from office on June 28.

Noorani's reporting of the case received criticism for being too partial to Sharif; he even issued an apology and a correction for a story, and was issued a contempt of court notice for another story on the alleged Supreme Court directed-involvement of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence services, the ISI, in the probe.

After the attack on Noorani, Nawaz Sharif called on the current Prime Minister to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. But who are they? We can't be sure, but many in the journalist community are silently pointing fingers.

In his column, Abbas Nasir explained, "CCTV cameras have a way of malfunctioning when the all-powerful perpetrators of such excesses are merely teaching a lesson to someone who represents a dissenting voice. I'd be very surprised if at the time of the attack the camera was actually functioning."

He continued, "It would be a safe bet to say that the state had a hand in the attack on the journalist, and, no, I will never have proof, as I did not when my good friend Saleem Shahzad was killed or when Hayatullah was kidnapped, shot and dumped in Fata, and many others went the same way in the tribal areas."

Days before his attack, Noorani deactivated his Twitter account. Even though he had a record of filing multiple reports every week for the News, his byline stopped appearing two weeks before the attack. Noorani was apparently laying low, something other journalists who have faced threats have resorted to.

"Impunity thrives when there is lack of support"

On October 20, the Pakistani freelance journalist Zeenat Shahzadi who had been missing for two years, was recovered by Pakistan's security forces.

Shahzadi is the first female journalist in Pakistan to have gone missing. A few months before her disappearance in August 2015, she was forcibly taken by security agencies in Pakistan for interrogation.

"Had BBC not reported about her abduction after a year, we would not ever know that a fellow journalist had been targeted. We would not have been able to follow her case, or investigate her circumstances. That is what impunity does. It makes us unwanted and often invisible. It makes journalism spineless," explained Kiran Nazish, a self-exiled Pakistani journalist and the founder of Coalition for Women in Journalism, which aims to build global peer-to-peer support for women journalists.

"We complain about the growing threats journalists face, but do not acknowledge that the very lack of a solid support network within the community has encouraged impunity."

She continued, "Journalists are more vulnerable when they are on their own, and women journalists in particular as gender is used against them in misogynistic cultures. Impunity thrives when there is lack of support."

Self-censorship on the rise

CPJ research shows that entrenched impunity fosters self-censorship, as journalists flee into exile or fall silent to threats and imminent risk. In 2016, CPJ did not identify anyone singled out for murder in Pakistan because of journalistic work, a first since 2001, but things seem to have taken a downward spiral in 2017.

Raza Rumi explained that he was planning on returning to Pakistan a few weeks ago, when he found out his personal Facebook page had been labelled "anti-state" by authorities. "That is totally beyond me because I have been indulging in self-censorship even though I am outside Pakistan."

He continues, "The space for critical questions and critical analysis and reporting has shrunk to an unbelievable degree. And through editing a major newspaper in the country I have discovered that the redlines have only multiplied. Half of my time in Daily Times production is spent in checking if something will not put my colleagues there in the field into some kind of danger."

Independent groups document threats

Owais Aslam Ali, of PPF, which maintains the country's largest database of crimes against journalists, believes that any new legislation should also "introduce effective mechanisms to monitor cases of violence against media."

"Of the journalists who have been targeted and killed, many were threatened before, but records of those threats only exist in about 14 cases, until 2015," explained Sadaf Baig from MMfD.

Documenting threats independently has been a major focus of civil society and news organizations working in Pakistan. In 2015, the Pakistan Freedom Network helped set-up Pakistan Press Club Safety Hubs in several cities which provides some assistance to journalists in distress, while documenting and monitoring threats. MMfD and PPF also document and issue alerts every time a journalist is attacked.

Additionally, an Editors for Safety WhatsApp group has been successful in ensuring that media covers attacks on journalists with solidarity.

Prevent, protect and prosecute

Pakistan has been a pilot country for the implementation of the UN Action Plan on Safety of Journalists and Issue of Impunity since 2013. As a first step, representatives from media policy organizations and media groups formed the Pakistan Coalition on Media Safety (PCOMS) and came up with over 150 findings and more than 300 recommendations. These included drafting bills and model laws on safety for journalists and media workers at the federal and provincial levels.

In March 2014, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a set of commitments to a delegation from CPJ. His promises included setting up a special commission and a special prosecutor's office.

In January 2015, PCOMS arranged a broadly attended meeting to critique draft law "The Protection of Professionals Engaged in Journalism Act 2015". CPJ's Bob Dietz, who attended the meeting, reported, “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.”

PCOMS has been largely inactive since, but at the end of 2016, the Pakistani government began a round of consultations with some members of the original group and other journalist groups for a proposed Journalist Welfare and Safety Bill. The last draft of the bill shown to them was focused on providing monetary support to families of slain journalists and did not mention special prosecutors or special investigators.

Intimidation and harassment of media remains unchallenged

Noorani's attack, while not lethal, seems to be an intimidation tactic. "I don't think any new bill will lead to safety until intimidation and harassment are challenged," said Raza Rumi, a Pakistani newspaper editor living in self-imposed exile outside the country for three years, since an attempt on his life.

"With attacks on journalists by elements of the deep state, the solution is not to have yet another law, but actually that the deep state and non-state actors be held accountable. This new bill is an eyewash for the lack of respecting media freedoms by the state."

Raza Rumi was targeted by religious extremists on his way home from work in 2014. He survived the attack, but his driver was killed.

"I do want to return to Pakistan. [..] But after every attack, such as the one on Noorani, I fear for my life. And more importantly, I fear for the unintended consequences of anything that is done to me, like what happened in 2014, when my young innocent driver died."

The day Raza was attacked, he had discussed Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws on his TV talk show. Many journalists consider the blasphemy laws a reporting redline that they don't want to cross.

Like Raza, sixteen Pakistani journalists were forced to flee their country into exile since 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Rumi's case, which involved religious extremists, was moved to Pakistan's military courts.

Ed. Note: Sahar Habib Ghazi is the managing editor of Global Voices. She is also on the board of MMfD, an organization quoted in this piece.

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