Friday, January 27, 2012

Safety of Journalists - Need for a Coalition.

Published on May 23, ‘Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11’ was applauded on both national and international forums for bringing to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan’s stability. Authored by a globally recognized and respected investigative journalist, Saleem Shahzad, it focused on the new generation of Al-Qaeda leaders who were behind most of the recent terrorist attacks and delivered an essential analysis of various major incidents including Mumbai 2008.
The publication was followed by an article in Asia Times. Published post PNS-Mehran attack in Karachi, this article pointed out affiliates of Al-Qaeda operating deep within the ranks of Pakistan Navy. The very next day, on his way to a TV interview, Shahzad was abducted by as yet unidentified personnel. His family lodged a complaint but the following morning his dead-body was found on the roadside of a remote village. He had been tortured to death.

A judicial commission is currently investigating his death. While the assassins have not been officially identified as yet, Shahzad’s death brought on various accusations that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had a role to play in this tragedy. Needless to say, both the agencies and the representatives of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) have denied any involvement.

Shahzad’s case is not a lone incident; in fact he was among the 76 Pakistani journalists who have lost their lives during the last 10 years. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), both have declared Pakistan the most dangerous country for journalists; more perilous than Mexico, Afghanistan and Iraq. One would naturally think the larger percentage of deceased would be from tribal and conflict regions but according to CPJ stats, surprisingly, 53% of them were covering political beats and that too mostly in metropolitan areas.

The figures become more chilling than surprising when seen in context of recent Supreme Court’s verdict on the Karachi violence case. SC declared that political face of the city has been taken hostage by militant groups of political and ethnic parties who commit illegal activities with impunity. 

Freedom of media and speech is imperative to a free and democratic society but high level of threats that working journalists are facing in Pakistan has made it extremely challenging to report impartially. According to CPJ stats, complete impunity exists in 95% of murder cases of journalists. Safety of media professionals, or the citizens for that matter, cannot be guaranteed in a society where impunity prevails and perpetrators are not only allowed to roam free but are also associated with the ruling political parties.

The first and the most obvious step to ensure safety of journalists most obviously is the provision of justice in preceding 76 cases of targeting killings. Without the triumph of justice, impunity would prevail and the reign of terror would continue to haunt free journalism and its practitioners.
Another important aspect associated with the deaths is the lack of basic survival training and equipment. From a single state-owned channel in year 2000 to more than 70 privately owned electronic news organizations, the time span of media’s tremendous growth in Pakistan has been very short and regrettably training and capacity building has never been a priority of media houses and its owners. Young professionals, camerapersons and reporters, are hired and sent to conflict regions without appropriate training and equipment for survival. Driven by the desire to be the ‘first on spot’, they often ignore all signs of mortal danger in their effort to get closer for a better shot and a story. Improvised bomb-attacks haven’t helped either. In a recent bomb-blast in Peshawar, when the journalists got to the spot for media coverage, another bomb went off which all in its likelihood was aimed to kill the lot of them.

Civil society can play a significant role in advocating and lobbying for the safety of journalists in Pakistan through a number of ways;

a) By bringing the major stakeholders i.e. media houses/owners, journalist associations and media practitioners on board and to help build a consensus on journalist safety protocols.   
b) By working to end impunity and to bring justice to the families of deceased.
c) By imparting basic conflict sensitive reporting skills and survival techniques essential for hostile environments, to the journalists working all around the country – urban and rural alike.

International Media Support (IMS) a Denmark based non-profit, working to support local media in countries affected by armed conflict, with its local partners Intermedia, Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), has an extensive three-year project to improve safety conditions for journalists in Pakistan, dealing mainly with the development of safety protocols, consensus building among stakeholders, conflict sensitive reporting and survival trainings, advocacy on safety and lobbying to end impunity. 

A 2-day conference on ‘Keeping Journalists and Journalism Safe in Hostile Environment’ recently organized by Intermedia and PFUJ in Islamabad was a part IMS Safety Project. It was aimed to bring together representatives of leading national and international media houses, media managers, practitioners and representatives of media development organizations to build a larger consensus on the extraordinary measures required to counter the threat level and to chalk-out the framework for next year’s activities.

Among the publications presented during this conference was a Safety Guide for journalists and an extensive report of the State of Media in Baluchistan, ‘Media Under Threat in Baluchistan’. The conference also hosted a number of journalists and media development experts from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Thailand and Sweden as panelists, to contribute in development of safety protocols; countries who like Pakistan have gone through an armed conflict.

Challenges of reporting in and from conflict regions, their responses and best practices of conflict sensitive journalism came under discussion in different sessions. OSF-Pakistan’s Country Directory, Absar Alam also presented a session to talk about identified setbacks, malpractices and way forward to improve the safety conditions for media practitioners and to ensure impartial journalism – in line with OSF Pakistan’s media strategy.

Among the prominent speakers were the Federal Secretary of Information & Broadcasting Ministry, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (the public relations/outreach department of Pakistan ARMY) Major General Athar Abbas and the Federal Interior Minister.

The aim of inviting government and army representatives was to involve state actors in an effort to minimize threat level for journalists but ironically enough; the Sect Info feigned complete ignorance of the fact that 20 Journalists have been killed in Baluchistan alone. DG ISPR on the other hand, was good with the figures but declared that it was not ARMY’s job to investigate. When asked about the alleged involvement of security agencies in persecution of journalists, he promised to take action if investigating police department gets him the proof of agencies’ connection; which clearly shows his good sense of humor but nothing more.

On a rather serious note, their contribution clearly shows the level of information, interest and commitment to the cause of justice in preceding cases.

Another protuberant guest speaker, Federal Interior Minister, Rehman Malik promised to form an eight-member committee, comprising upon the four provincial police/state officials, himself and three representatives from media fraternity to follow-up on the preceding cases – a caucus to ensure speedy justice; a step in the right direction.

The outputs of this two-day event are nothing short than impressive; agreement of five national and three regional media groups on safety protocol developed by IMS/Intermedia; proposition of a bill for journalist’s safety, to be drafted by IMS/Intermedia lawyers and presented in Parliament by Interior Minister himself and consensus on ‘Deceleration of Safety’, outlining the respective roles of media associations, owners and practitioners in protecting the journalists.

IMS plans to hold activities tailored around the points of declaration to ensure its implementation in the coming year. IMS & Intermedia Pakistan have also stepped up to create a cadre of local trainers who will be able to devise training manuals & conduct trainings that are actually customized to the sensitivities, needs & issues of the main conflict zones in Pakistan (FATA, Baluchistan & Urban Centers).

Targeting of journalists in Pakistan is nothing short of targeting the freedom of media and speech itself and is absolutely unacceptable. Urgent measures need to be taken and while initiatives of IMS are credible and commendable, others need to pool in to make the safety procedures more sustainable. For maximum impact and to ensure coordinated efforts, an effective option could be a coalition of national and international civil society organizations and major stakeholders i.e. media houses, journalist unions and practitioners. As many as 76 murdered journalists’ families are awaiting justice and the culture of impunity cannot end without the active presence of an influential pressure group. A coalition could act as the said pressure group to work towards ending impunity and could be a substantial first step towards a safe environment for free journalism.