The perils of reporting in Pakistan

It has been a terrible year for Pakistan, and 2010 has not spared journalists working in the country either. In September so far, three journalists have been killed, one has been beaten up and another tortured so severely that chills went up even the bravest journalist’s spine. Six journalists have been killed in Pakistan this ...

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

It has been a terrible year for Pakistan, and 2010 has not spared journalists working in the country either. In September so far, three journalists have been killed, one has been beaten up and another tortured so severely that chills went up even the bravest journalist's spine. Six journalists have been killed in Pakistan this year alone, with the last casualty reportedly at the hands of the Taliban. Three Afghan journalists were recently arrested recently by Afghan or international forces on the other side of the border, as well. And the year isn't over yet.

In the first week of September, Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema was abducted and tortured in Islamabad, at the hands of unnamed criminals. After his release, he said his captors had warned him to "Stop writing against the government, if you cannot bear this torture." It is widely believed that his kidnapping and torture were at the hands of Pakistan's spy agencies, which have had a long and bloody history of quelling dissent. One only has to look at a list of what Cheema had been reporting on to connect the dots.

Writing in Dawn, columnist Kamran Shafi hits the nail squarely on its head.

It has been a terrible year for Pakistan, and 2010 has not spared journalists working in the country either. In September so far, three journalists have been killed, one has been beaten up and another tortured so severely that chills went up even the bravest journalist’s spine. Six journalists have been killed in Pakistan this year alone, with the last casualty reportedly at the hands of the Taliban. Three Afghan journalists were recently arrested recently by Afghan or international forces on the other side of the border, as well. And the year isn’t over yet.

In the first week of September, Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema was abducted and tortured in Islamabad, at the hands of unnamed criminals. After his release, he said his captors had warned him to "Stop writing against the government, if you cannot bear this torture." It is widely believed that his kidnapping and torture were at the hands of Pakistan’s spy agencies, which have had a long and bloody history of quelling dissent. One only has to look at a list of what Cheema had been reporting on to connect the dots.

Writing in Dawn, columnist Kamran Shafi hits the nail squarely on its head.

We will never find out what happened to poor Umar Cheema because the Deep State does not want us to find out. It is a law, a country, a nation, and a state unto itself all rolled up in one, independently sprung as it is due to the billions of rupees it forcibly purloins from the hapless government of Pakistan on pain of imminent death and worse.

In a telephone interview, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira said that a joint investigation team (JIT) and a judicial commission have been set up to investigate Umar Cheema’s case, where the team also includes, for the first time a private individual — a representative from the Jang Group so that they can ensure transparency. The JIT also includes people from the Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence, and the ISI. "The Government is serious about investigating this case. It is a democratic government and this cannot happen. We want to investigate the facts and catch the culprits."

Browsing through the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Pakistan page is a depressing experience. Scores of names, some killed at the hands of gunmen, others in suicide bombings. While many would say that journalists too are part of the population that cannot remain untouched from the violence that has devastated Pakistan, in many cases these deaths could have been avoided, and in some cases, media organizations must share the blame.

While no journalist, myself included, would want to walk around with a security guard on the job, media organizations must ensure that reporters, especially those covering sensitive occasions such as religious processions or military operations, are given adequate protection. Even at the largest privately run media organizations, reporters are unaware of basic first aid training. This must be made compulsory by the organizations, as must be the standard gear — bulletproof jackets and helmets. The cost of buying the equipment is surely not dearer than the cost of a human life.

Qamar Zaman Kaira agrees that journalists cannot walk around with guards and that the security situation in the country is not unknown to anyone, but says they have asked the journalism community to tell them what security measures can be provided from the government. "The Interior Ministry is clearing the release of bulletproof jackets that have been imported and were at the airport, and we’re also providing 100 more jackets. Additionally, the Ministry is providing safety training as well to journalists."

Fahad Desmukh, a freelance journalist, says, "Something needs to be done to deal with the cutthroat competition that forces journalists, cameramen and even the drivers to take needless risks. Journalists should not be penalized for walking away from a dangerous assignment. Right now, the owners care more about protecting their cameras, vehicles and equipment rather than the lives of their employees."

Secondly, while the government can only do so much to improve the security situation (and their efforts in this regard are an entirely different post altogether), we must remember that there is, at least on the surface, a civilian, democratic government in place. While the influence and the power of the shadowy intelligence agencies is not hidden from anyone, and it is clear that they often act without any directions from the government, it would send a reassuring message to journalists reporting in Pakistan if the Pakistani government carried out a fair and thorough investigation into Umar Cheema’s abduction. It is also high time that the government ensures that media organizations implement necessary safety measures, so that every time we go out in the field, we are not wracked with fear that we’re risking life and limb for a story without an iota of preparation.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com.

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