Vernacular Media under Siege in Pakistan

Pakistan is a virtual hell for the free, neutral, bold and intellectually sound media-associated persons and journalists, especially the associates of vernacular Sindhi and Baloch media. Dozens of media-associated persons and opinion makers are victimized or killed by the military, Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI) as well as their supported urban or religious terrorists. Given the exclusive Punjabization of almost every civil and military institution of Pakistan, there has been no single quotable case of the murder and/or brutalization of a Punjabi journalist from 1947 to 2013. Saleem Shahzad and Najam Sethi were exceptions because Shahzad touched the forbidden tree – the evidence of the nexus between Islamist terrorists and the garrison city Rawalpindi, and Najam Sethi held secular views and opposed the Punjabi military establishment of Pakistan. (However, today, he is also closely linked with the military establishment unlike his wonderful past).

It is condemnable that Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir (although both Punjabi journalists well known for their deep roots in the military establishment) were attacked before and after the visit of Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in Pakistan. CPJ was worried about victimization and murders of journalists in Pakistan since Baloch and Sindhi and to certain extent Pashtun journalists from Sindh and Balochistan have been victims.

It is an irony that Pakistan’s so-called Urdu and English national media has been reluctant to publish or telecast the news about the abduction and murder of Sindhi and Baloch journalists and human rights activists. The criminal silence adopted by the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist (PFUJ) and South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) Pakistan Chapter over the victimization of Sindhi and Baloch journalists has been disastrous. Unfortunately, at the behest of Punjabi power, ethnicity has trumped the sanctity of humanity in Pakistan to the point that murder and persecution of Sindhi and Baloch journalists and human rights defenders gets hardly any space in the leading English and Urdu media of Pakistan.

Media Freedom Then and Now

In Pakistan, the media has a limited freedom within the parameters narrowly described by the powerful military establishment of the country concerning professional activities including reporting, publishing, analyzing, writing and opinionating.

If seen from the evolutionary perspective of media freedom, Pakistani media has undergone four phases of transformation. During the country’s first three decades (1947 – 1979), Pakistani media enjoyed a greater degree of freedom across the country at the national level, but was less free at the rural level. The crucial period for freedom of press was that of the military rule of General Ziaulhaq (1980 – 1988), when media faced severe curbs to appropriately reporting and opinionating about the democratic movement whose centre-stage was Sindh. Media got breathing space only once again during a decade of elected civil governance (1988 – 1998). A relatively higher degree of freedom at every level under civilian governments was enjoyed. The worst media curbs ever imposed were during the rule of General Pervaiz Musharaf (1999 – 2008). He induced deceptive policies. His policies for virtually controlling media was under cover of freedom of media. The General used media camouflage; however, he imposed curbs and censures on the freedom of Sindhi and Balochi media. The virtual censure he imposed is still in the place.

Militarization of Media

The media, especially Sindhi and Baloch media, face major challenges in their professional endeavors from various corners, including state institutions as well as state- supported non-state actors.

The military establishment led by Pakistan’s Army – particularly that part engaged in military and/or clandestine operations in Sindh and Baluchistan through its intelligence wings like ISI and MI with the technical help of Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR)- is led by a Major General level senior military official assisted by a fleet of Captain-Major-Colonel journalists, reporters, editors and directors of media houses. Their task has been to determine the level of coverage for particular events, news, or political parties; controlling Op-Ed pages; introducing pitches against civil governments and controlling media coverage of secessionist movements in Sindh and Balochistan.

Freedom in Chains

The Pakistani military has had a separate and highly specialized cell for Balochi, Sindhi and Pashtun media since 2000, when the military started inviting journalists from across the Pakistan to establish military-media courting relations to woo dominant civil thought. The unwritten dirty media policy imposed on Sindhi media had verbal instructions like (i) use the word “law enforcement agency” instead of “Pakistan Army” if the military attacks citizens in Sindh and Balochistan or the citizens from these province protest against the army’s atrocities; (ii) use word “elder province” instead of “Punjab” if there is a protest or statement against Punjab; and (iii) use word “Aajpo” (salvation) instead of “Azad” (freedom) when news of secessionist activity is published. These procedures were advised (i.e. instructed) in meetings with editors by the “Date Offices” as ISI and MI call their Public Relations offices established in every Sub-district (Tahsil), District and Division headquarter.

Forced Salafization

In a bid to Salafize the masses, especially the secular and liberal Sindhi and Baloch, the pseudo-secular and unenlightened as well as non-moderation policy of General Musharaf asked the vernacular media (which attracts the largest audiences) not to publish words like “Khuda” and “Maseet,” which are local names in Sindhi, Balochi, Siraki and Punjabi for “God” and “Mosque.” Instead, they were instructed to publish words “Allah” and “Masjid” – the Arabic version. This was in bid to Salafize Sindhi, Baloch and Siraki societies.

Security-mafia Control

After the Great Flood of the Indus in 2010, the media was pressured not to quote the actual number of victims as well as the velocity of the disaster. This was a taboo for the area of security installations as well as for Sindh and Balochistan.

On the other hand, in cities, the militant wings of the political – particularly ethnic – parties as in Karachi, often harass journalists if their work challenges the interests of these powerful groups / individuals. These groups had the military establishment’s support. The murder of journalist Wali Khan Babar and the attack on the office of AAJ TV in Karachi by a party allied to General Pervaiz Musharaf are the much-quoted examples of this.

Journalism in danger

Journalists in Pakistan face various kinds of dangers. Abduction as well as killing of journalists and analysts by the military and other armed forces like the Pakistan Rangers (in Sindh), Front Constabulary (Balochistan), Frontiers Force (Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa) as well as local police has been reported since the 1980s and especially after 2000. On the other hand, the enforced disappearance and torture of reporters and analysts by the intelligence agencies especially ISI and MI has been a major problem of the last decade and is ongoing. The worst condition is the targeted killing and in some cases poisoning of journalists. Targeted killing of journalists by the militant wings of an ethnic political party in Karachi and some exceptional cases in the countryside by the powerful landholders has been reported at various times.

On the other hand, pressure looms large on the media houses to sack reporters and Op-editors / columnists / contributors if they go beyond the limits devised by the security establishment. Poisoning of journalists, writers and columnists, in cases where their abduction or murder would become a matter of public outcry has also been attempted in some cases over the last decade.

Economic punishments

Government advertisements are stopped and private entrepreneurs pressured to discourage advertising in targeted media houses, if they do not comply with the orders of the Pakistan Army and its associated security agencies.

Pakistan imports paper for printing and has a subsidized quota for each print media house. When a media house does not comply with the instructions of the civil government or the military establishment, its quota is challenged.

What is to be done?

Legislation clearly devising a framework of freedom for working journalists, including staffers, reporters, correspondents, analysts, anchorpersons, Op-ed teams and columnists as well as freelancers must be enacted. Moreover, provincial / federal level tribunals should be established in case the freedom of professional activity for print, electronic and social media is circumscribed. In case of harassment, particularly murder or attempted murder, an inquiry commission should be formed that must contain persons not only from Pakistan, but also observers from the international network. Moreover, relevant amendments should be made in the Criminal Procedure Code and other legal frameworks for mentioning the procedure and punishment term if a journalist, opinion maker, columnist, analyst, anchorperson or social media activist is harassed, tortured, or killed. Furthermore, a permanent international commission should be created to carry out inquiries as well as generate political pressure if media associates are targeted in civil-war laden countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria etc.

On the other hand, social media have mostly been trying to focus on what the so-called national media, as well as corporate media have been unable to do due to their own policies and/or pressure from the authorities. The role of social media has been positive in Pakistan, as proven during the 2013 elections when social media activists / citizen-journalists uncovered election irregularities, due to which the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced re-elections in some of electoral constituencies.

Making political parties accountable has been a great failure of Pakistani media – particularly the electronic media – as most of the time some select individuals or specific political parties are made the sole focus of accountability – generally as a result of big media houses’ bias or the pressure from their friendly association with the military establishment.

In fact, holding Pakistani politicians accountable is not a problematic affair per se for the Pakistani media; however, media mostly avoid holding accountable those politicians and religious party leaders who have the power to make violence, have military backing, or are part of the military itself.

The primary issue in Pakistan is holding the military establishment of the country accountable for its unnecessary interference in civilian domains, especially the vernacular media of Sindh and Balochistan.