In Pakistan, can a bill keep journalists safe?

Pakistani journalists hold oil lamps during a vigil to pay tribute to their colleagues and lawyers who were killed in a suicide bombing at the Civil Hospital in Islamabad, August 2016. (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

When freelance journalist Umer Ali traveled to the city of Pattoki in eastern Pakistan to attend a hearing for Nabeel Masih in December 2016, he knew the scene would be tense, and possibly dangerous.

Masih, 17 years old, had been accused of blasphemy—a crime that can carry the death penalty in Pakistan. Outside the courtroom, a mob of at least 30 had gathered to ensure that a harsh punishment would be delivered to the young man, whose charge was liking an allegedly offensive Facebook post featuring Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. Masih’s family asserted he was innocent, arguing that he was illiterate and had liked the photo by accident.

Trending: Amid a sea of voices, Vox’s Carlos Maza breaks through

Ali had arrived with Masih’s lawyers—a risk, since defense lawyers on blasphemy cases are themselves often targeted by vigilante groups in Pakistan. Judges on such cases are also regularly attacked, and on that day, the presiding judge scanned the agitated crowd and dismissed the day’s session, fearing for his safety.

Following the hearing, Ali had hoped to travel 30 minutes down the road to Masih’s village to interview his family, but Masih’s lawyers suggested Ali cancel his plans. Instead, Ali rode to the local police station with Masih’s elder brother, entreating officials for protection. But the police offered little help, instead asking Ali which media outlet he worked for, and reminding him that he could drop the story if it threatened his safety.

Photo courtesy Umer Ali (Mundus Journalism Bluebook)

Today, Masih is still in jail awaiting a verdict. Ali was eventually able to interview Masih’s family members, but not all journalists in Pakistan have been fortunate enough to escape with their stories, or even their lives. In the past 15 years, 117 Pakistani journalists were killed on the job, and mounting attacks on journalists continue to imperil the country’s press freedoms. Media watchdogs say perpetrators enjoy broad impunity for attacks against journalists, and self-censorship remains an entrenched practice in the country’s newsrooms. The World Press Freedom Index from 2017 ranked the country 139th out of 180 worldwide.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Over the past few months, Pakistani lawmakers have been drafting a bill to safeguard journalists’ right to work without risking physical harm. Although the bill is currently in the initial stages, it would offer a broad range of protections to journalists, including a safety fund, designated safe houses, and compensation for families of journalists who die on the job. A special prosecutor would also be appointed to investigate crimes against reporters.

“In Pakistan, journalists have increasingly been facing threats to their life,” says former senator Farhatullah Babar, one of the key parliamentarians behind the bill during its drafting. Babar hopes the bill will make it easier for journalists to report without facing harm.

The bill not only aims to protect reporters for traditional outlets, but also accredited freelancers and other vulnerable categories of news producers. Notably, the bill covers “bloggers using social media for self-expression”—a promise that comes against the backdrop of a rising number of disappearances, including the abduction and torture of four bloggers last January, and the disappearance in December of a peace activist who advocated for India-Pakistan friendship.

 

Self-censorship has basically become the norm. The people who don’t self-censor are the outliers, and they’re seen as troublemakers.”

 

But there’s only so much faith that can be placed in legal reforms. “It’s very difficult for any legislation to be able to deal with threats against journalists,” says Asad Baig, executive director of the Islamabad-based Media Matters for Democracy. A wide variety of actors, both state and non-state, threaten journalists—including Islamist militants, vigilante groups, and political parties—in the hopes of influencing or expunging stories. Many of these groups operate outside the ambit of the law, making the quest for accountability difficult. During periods of political unrest or violent clashes between law enforcement and militant groups, journalists are known to enter the crossfire. Last February, Taimoor Khan, a Samaa TV cameraman, was killed while reporting on a police vehicle that had just been attacked by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in the port city of Karachi. When he arrived at the scene, the militant group took aim at him. Khan’s death prompted the government to denounce the shooting and pledge greater safeguards for journalists.

Journalists in Pakistan say that few attacks on the press corps have been resolved in courtrooms; in fact, members of the media have no guarantee that perpetrators can or will be called to appear in court. “The law only protects me on paper,” says Annam Lodhi, a 25-year-old freelance journalist based in Islamabad.

Still, local journalists appreciate some of the bill’s provisions, and they particularly applaud the government’s efforts to extend compensation to the families of journalists who die in the line of duty. The government has pledged 200 million rupees (approximately $1,806,000) to the project, and media outlets are expected to provide additional funds through regular donations, varying between outlets, depending on the number of journalists they employ.

ICYMI: The cost of reporting while female

The bill also proposes the creation of a National Journalists Safety Council, which would be  tasked with drawing up safety policies for journalists, as well as investigating crimes against members of the media. Following recommendations from groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, a newly designated special prosecutor would be the primary entity responsible for investigating these crimes. Under the bill, the prosecutor would help journalists file and prosecute cases; protect survivors and witnesses of crimes; monitor threats against reporters; and investigate state involvement in crimes against journalists.

However, the authority of special prosecutors is generally limited in Pakistan, as they do not possess the power to initiate their own investigations or hire additional staff to gather evidence, making them dependent on evidence collected and filed by the police, Baig says. If the police officer’s evidence is exiguous, the investigation will end before it begins. Elsewhere, there is a precedent for what happens when a country appoints a powerless special prosecutor to look after journalists. In Mexico, the world’s deadliest country for journalists in 2017, the establishment of a special prosecutor’s office has inspired little confidence. The office lacks the manpower to conduct investigations, let alone prosecute assailants, and has been known to turn journalists away. For this reason, Baig suggests a different solution: creating an independent body that can look into crimes against journalists. He argues that it’s paramount to detach the work from the Ministry of Interior, which might bias the outcome in cases involving government officials: “Basically, give it to a body that can do it impartially,” he says.

 

Last year, Umar Farooq, a freelance journalist from New Orleans, traveled to a marketplace in Bannu, a city in the southern expanse of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan. He was there to interview internally displaced persons who had scattered to other areas in the wake of the Pakistan’s military operations in the tribal areas. As he began asking questions, a small ring of interviewees coalesced around him. When the day’s interviews drew to a close, Farooq walked to the main road to hail a rickshaw, only to be intercepted by a man on a motorcycle. The motorcyclist invited him for a ride. “I don’t know you. Why would I take a ride with you?” Farooq told him. The man was insistent: “You have to take a ride with me.”

The motorcyclist brandished pictures of himself in a military uniform, and told Farooq that he worked for military intelligence. “He said that he’d heard there was an American here,” Farooq tells CJR. “He was coming to make sure no one was saying anything too derogatory about the security forces.”

Farooq went with the man, who only carried Farooq for a short ride of two or three minutes before dropping him on the side of the road. Finally, Farooq hailed a rickshaw, but he noticed another man following close behind him. The man wore sunglasses and a baseball cap, and in his shirt pocket, Farooq could make out a phone, which appeared to be filming him.

ICYMI: How hacked emails and a yacht in Monaco ended my career at The Wall Street Journal

Later, when Farooq recounted the story to another journalist, he was rebuked for not requesting an ID to verify the authenticity of the motorcyclist’s claim. Indeed, for many journalists in politically sensitive areas, the murkiness of the reporting environment can obscure the distinction between official and unofficial actors.

Reporting excursions to Pakistan’s borderlands now inevitably involve running into impediments, ranging from hostile militants to government surveillance. Under this circumscribed geography of newsgathering, “self-censorship has basically become the norm,” says Baig. “The people who don’t self-censor are the outliers, and they’re seen as troublemakers.”

 

The worst part is that while crimes and violence have been committed against journalists, with the exception of two or three cases, no convictions have taken place.”

 

A 2018 report by the Lahore-based Digital Rights Foundation found that almost half of all surveyed Pakistani journalists say they self-censor. While mainstream media outlets are cognizant of the red lines, the proliferation of new digital media outlets has spurred a younger crop of journalists to break boundaries online, articulating narratives that may run counter to traditional views that have currency. And while the onus often lies on journalists to manage their own security, the ramifications of poor safety will ripple over and affect interviewees as well. “If they’re not secure, their sources aren’t secure,” says Nighat Dad, the foundation’s executive director.

Ultimately, a legal instrument is only as effective as a citizen’s belief that it can work. Even former senator Babar acknowledges that it may take time for journalists to feel shielded through legislation, given the severity of threats that exist for journalists in Pakistan today. “The worst part is that while crimes and violence have been committed against journalists, with the exception of two or three cases, no convictions have taken place,” Babar says. “The basic purpose of this bill is to end the impunity.”

Trending: The Times tech columnist ‘unplugged’ from the internet. Except he didn’t.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sabrina Toppa is an independent journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Time, The Washington Post, and NBC News. Follow her on Twitter @SabrinaToppa.