Pakistan's journalists: in the line of fire

Security for reporters improved worldwide, but Pakistan remains one of the deadliest places for the profession in 2008.

Adil Gill/Newscom
On Nov. 12, journalists in Islamabad, Pakistan, called for the arrest of the murderers of journalists there. This week, a Reporters Without Borders report found journalists in Pakistan to have the second highest death toll after Iraq.

Ansar Abbasi, one of Pakistan's most popular print journalists, has started taking long winding routes to his office in Islamabad.

In his two decades as an investigative reporter, Mr. Abbasi has taken on the Pakistani bureaucracy, major political leaders, the military, and even the powerful intelligence services. But in recent weeks he's been told by some "well-wishers" to be more "unpredictable" in his movements – a string of recent scoops has put his life in danger, he says.

The death threats against Abbasi are making front-page news, but his is not the only story of a journalist at risk in Pakistan.

Journalists covering sensitive issues – politics, the fight against militants, or most recently the aftermath of the Mumbai (Bombay) attacks – are facing growing pressure from the government, Army, and intelligence agencies and from militants who would "like to control the media's message," says Adnan Rehmat, the director of Internews, a Washington-based media watchdog group.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group that monitors press freedom around the world, reported in December that Pakistan has become one of the most dangerous places on earth for a journalist to report in 2008.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders also released an annual report this week that found that Pakistan had the second-highest death toll for journalists after Iraq in 2008 – an "annus horribilis" for journalists in Pakistan, it stated. Last year, the group reported, seven reporters were killed, compared with 15 in Iraq.

"After what we'd been through with President [Pervez] Musharraf [in the past year], we hoped something positive would come out for us with a new democratic government," says Abbasi, sitting in his florescent-lit, bare-walled basement office.

Mr. Musharraf, in his final days as president in 2008, targeted the independent media in the country and forced all private TV news channels off the air for days. He also had journalists arrested en masse in November 2007, when he declared a state of emergency in the country.

"But things are still really bad," says Abbasi, and after a pause, "maybe even worse."

In the past few months, Abbasi has exposed financial dealings between the Army and religious parties in the current ruling coalition and broken news of corrupt practices by the chief justice – stories that did not win him any friends.

The government offered to provide him with an armed security detail, but Abbasi refused. "I'm not sure whether the people protecting me might just be the ones trailing me," he says.

In this country caught in several domestic battles and the global "war on terror," both state actors and militants pose a threat to journalists.

"We are in a fix," says Mazhar Abbas, a journalist who heads the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

Journalists are "working under serious danger" while covering many conflicts, domestic and international, he continues. "The security agencies and Army are fighting militants, and no matter what we write, we risk becoming targets for one or the other side."

While local reporters are more vulnerable, foreign journalists have also faced difficulties, especially in covering the conflict in the northwestern tribal areas where the Pakistani Army is battling Taliban militants.

A Canadian journalist was kidnapped by local militants while reporting a story from there in November, and a Japanese journalist was shot a few days later in a kidnapping attempt in Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

Mr. Abbas says three reporters working for a major US publication in the tribal areas were detained this month by the Taliban, who handed them over to local officials before the union of journalists was able to get them released.

A few journalists who covered the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks have also received threats from militants and security agencies to remain silent on the issue.

One journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, received veiled warnings following his report last month on the village of Faridkot. The article was the first to confirm claims by Indian police officials that the sole surviving Mumbai attacker came from the Pakistani village. The reporter left Islamabad for about a week but has now returned.

Another local journalist, with the country's largest Urdu news channel, who also asked not to be named for security reasons, began receiving threats from militants in the Punjab region after covering the same story. He has not been able to go home since then, he says.

"There's been fewer overt coercive measures by this government but the conditions on the ground – the laws in the books and the very real danger of being killed – those are still what they were when President Musharraf left office," says Mr. Rehmat, of Internews.

The new government and the security agencies – which are facing a host of troubles including US airstrikes on its territory, a crippled economy, and a worsening domestic militancy – may be lashing out at the media, says Rehmat.

"It's the age-old instinct of any weak government to become hostile toward independent media," he says.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group funded by the US government, said that 88 percent of Pakistanis thought their country was headed in the wrong direction. Sixty-six percent of those polled disapproved of the job President Asif Ali Zardari is doing.

"The institutions in this country, the judiciary, the government, the police – they're all failing to uncover the truth so it puts extra responsibility on us to hold people accountable," says Abbasi, the journalist, adding that in the process many reporters are putting their lives on the line.

"I fear things are only going to get worse next year," says Abbas, the head of the journalists' union. "The conflict in Pakistan is intensifying, and so is the pressure on the media."

Says Abbas: "In the end the truth might be the biggest casualty in all this."

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