Perils and perseverance: journalism under threat in Pakistan
By Olivier Guillard, author of A Dangerous Abyss Called Pakistan (L'Harmattan, Paris, 2022), a specialist in Asian issues, Olivier Guillard is a research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and a lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).
How to cite this publication
Olivier Guillard, Perils and perseverance: journalism under threat in Pakistan, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, August 18, 2023.
The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.
Journalism in Pakistan becomes a dangerous profession, where journalists, reporters, and media outlets confront a broad spectrum of safety hazards intrinsic to their profession, including assault, death threats, intimidation, abduction, and violence. Consequently, a culture of fear-induced self-censorship has taken root, curtailing coverage of critical issues such as corruption, human rights violations, and political repression. Recent incidents, like the killings of senior reporter Jan Muhammad Mahar and Ghuman Asghar Khand, underscore these threats. Protests against these attacks reflect the failure of the state machinery. Pakistan's ranking among the deadliest places for journalists, akin to Somalia and Burma, highlights the diverse threats from politicians, terror groups, influential figures, and state entities. Impunity persists, perpetuating a culture of silence. Even exiled journalists aren't safe, as seen in the murder of Arshad Sharif in Kenya. State-controlled regulations curb media independence, while attacks are escalating annually, with inadequate redress. Conflict zones heighten journalists' vulnerability, with Islamabad, Punjab, and Sindh being the riskiest areas. Pakistan's press freedom deficit obstructs journalists' work, and impunity for assailants persists due to indifference and misconceptions about the media's role.
Pakistan has a hostile environment for journalists, reporters, and media establishments. They often face an extensive array of safety risks due to the nature of their profession. This dangerous environment breeds fear and self-censorship, constraining coverage of critical issues such as corruption, human rights abuses, and political repression. 
On August 12, a senior reporter of a Sindhi news channel, Jan Muhammad Mahar, fell victim to a fatal armed attack by unidentified assailants in Sindh's Sukkur district. Tragically, Mahar was targeted while in his car, near his office. Preceding this incident, on August 7, another reporter, Ghuman Asghar Khand, met a similar fate in the Pir Jo Goth area of Khairpur district (Sindh province, 500 km northeast of Karachi). Reports suggest that Khand sustained nine gunshots. 
Meanwhile, protest rallies were held in many towns on August 14, against the murder of Jan Muhammad. The rallies in Sehwan, Dadu city, Johi, Khairpur Nathan Shah, Mehar, Bhan Syedabad and other towns in Sukkur district (Sindh province) were led by elected representatives of the respective press club or other journalists' organization. The protestors described the attack as failure of the state machinery and vowed to continue the protest until arrest of the killers. Lawyers, members of civil society, traders, students, and members of different political and nationalist entities joined in all the rallies to express solidarity with the journalist community. 
Likewise, on the list of the world's deadliest places to be a journalist by Reporters Without Borders published in 2022, Pakistan falls between the fragile Somalia and troubled Burma.  The threats to journalists come from diverse quarters, for instance, politicians, terror organizations, influential people, pressure groups, and state-controlled agencies. As far as cases of journalists' disappearance and accusations of torture are concerned, fingers are often pointed towards one agency or the other and in some cases, even the government looks ignorant and insensible.  In Pakistan, security agents have similarly ostensibly cautioned journalists against coverage of taboo subjects, such as abuses by the military, or given reporters instructions on how to cover specific political issues. 
On October 23, 2022 Pakistani investigative journalist, Arshad Sharif was killed in Nairobi, Kenya. Tragically, during his final months, Sharif received death threats and left Pakistan. Journalists with critical approach in Pakistan often have no option but to leave, and it is often assumed that those who choose exile are in a safe haven. Yet, circumstances occasionally place them in vulnerable situations. Sharif's killing in Kenya, as claimed by the Pakistani government, was the result of a plot hatched within Pakistan. This haunting incident serves as a stark reminder of the inherent perils tied to critical Pakistani journalism, leaving no room for escape.  "This open-ended impunity for crimes against journalists and media in Pakistan is taking an ugliest shape and latest killing of under-threat journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya reminds us how stronger perpetrators of crime and press freedom predators are getting," remarked Iqbal Khattak, Executive Director of Freedom Network. 
Reported on May 3, 2023, RWB emphasized that Pakistani law is often wielded to suppress dissent under the pretense of safeguarding journalism. The regulatory body (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ; PEMRA) "is concerned less with overseeing the media sector than with regulating the content it publishes." This report further elucidates that media outlets, including those privately owned, rely on state-sponsored advertisements and legal notices for financial sustenance. Consequently, provincial and national information ministries possess the leverage to manipulate editorial policy by wielding the threat of advertising withdrawal. 
Between May 2022 and March 2023, Pakistan recorded a distressing tally of at least 140 cases involving threats and assaults against journalists, media professionals, and media entities, as documented in Freedom Network's annual Pakistan Press Freedom Report. This translates to an average of approximately 13 incidents per month, or at least one violation every three days, a significant escalation from the previous frequency of one every five days during 2021-22. Startlingly, the instances of press freedom breaches surged to 140 in 2022-23 from 86 in the preceding year, indicating a steep yearly uptick of about 63 percent. Among the principal categories of violations targeting journalists were 51 instances (comprising 36 percent) of physical assault, 21 cases (15 percent) of attacks that inflicted damage upon equipment, journalists' residences, or news organizations' premises, and 14 cases (10 percent) of offline or online threats, including seven instances of death threats. Collectively, these three forms of infractions constituted an overwhelming share of nearly 60 percent within the total count of 140 cases. 
Journalists who work in conflict zones, such as in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces are mostly susceptible to threats from terror organizations, criminal gangs, and unidentified state actors.  The Pakistan Press Freedom Report has also identified Islamabad as the "riskiest" region for journalists in Pakistan, adding that 40 per cent of the violations (56 out of total 140 cases) were recorded there. Punjab province was second worst with 25 per cent of the violations (35 cases) and Sindh a close third at 23 per cent (32 cases) as per the report. 
In a prior instance, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released its White Paper on Global Journalism in 2020, ranked Pakistan as the fifth worst country for journalists. Shockingly, the country has witnessed the tragic loss of at least 138 journalists since 1990, with a staggering 42 of them falling victim within the last four years alone. 
Journalists across a varied range of media affiliations and locations in Pakistan, such as Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province), Islamabad, Lahore (Punjab province), Karachi and Hyderabad (Sindh province), have vividly expressed how a lack of press freedom has impacted their work. They reveal that their decisions on what to report are unduly influenced by the threats to their physical security. The absence of political will in Pakistan to ensure journalists' safety, coupled with inadequate governmental initiatives to broaden press freedom, implies that journalists may persist in grappling with the consequences of a deteriorating press freedom milieu in the times ahead. 
In an environment where news organizations, journalists, and media houses already grapple with formidable pressures and the recurring need to "sanitize" their content, the plight of journalists is further exacerbated. Such atrocities not only reveal the hollowness of the Pakistan government's claims of a "free media" but also render reporters, anchorpersons, and other media professionals increasingly vulnerable to external pressures and influences. Consequently, the community of journalists and media practitioners in Pakistan strongly believes that without dedicated safety laws, curbing the audacity of attackers remains elusive. A prevailing apathy toward journalist well-being, coupled with malicious online campaigns to undermine their credibility, and a misguided notion that all media forms—be it print, visual, or online—pose a threat to the nation, converge to render assailants largely immune from accountability. The persistent recurrence of these attacks directly stems from the impunity granted to perpetrators. Only through positive approach of fostering a protective environment can Pakistan break this vicious cycle plaguing journalism.
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