In Pakistan, big perks and big risks to being a journalist

A bomb was found under the car of prominent journalist Hamid Mir, highlighting the difficulties facing journalists in Pakistan.

Sohail Shahzad/Reuters
Senior journalist for the Geo News television station Hamid Mir points to his car where a bomb was found underneath, in Islamabad, Nov. 26. A bomb was found on Monday under the car of Mir, who the Taliban had threatened over his coverage of a schoolgirl the militants shot, his employer said.

Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist known for being antigovernment and antimilitary, escaped an assassination attempt yesterday when a bomb planted under his car failed to explode.

“It is a message to me … and the journalist community,” Mr. Mir said on air to Geo News, where he works.  

That message is clear: You’re reporting something we don’t want you to report.

Although he received threats from the Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the death threat because he spoke against the group's attack last month on 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, many within the journalist community here believe it was Mir’s criticism of the Pakistani military that may have made him a target.

“These are dirty tricks orchestrated by the security agencies,” says Matiullah Jan, who hosts a daily television show for Waqt News in Islamabad on media accountability. “When they cannot pay [bribe] someone, they attack the journalists. There are many journalists who are mouthpieces of [the security] establishment. There is obvious corruption.”

Mr. Jan was himself attacked a few years ago and suspects Pakistan intelligence agencies were behind it.

“I was doing a story on the chief of ISI then – Gen. Pasha and a military trial wrongly conducted under his watch – and that is when I was attacked by a brick that hit my car while I was driving in Islamabad,” Jan says.

Pakistan was ranked as the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists this year in a report released by the United Nations. And the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent international body to defend press freedom, ranked Pakistan as the most dangerous country in both 2010 and 2011.

More than 90 Pakistani journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000, and none of the cases have been solved. Journalists say they face threats not only from terrorists, but also from the powerful military establishment.

“It is hard for us to report without pressures in a balanced, fair way with military on one side and the Taliban on the other,” says Safdar Dawar, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists. He recently received an international human rights award for his reporting from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

“Some selected journalists even receive monthly payments from the intelligence agencies,” Jan says, adding that it’s common for prominent journalists to be offered property from the government at cheaper rates with the expectation that they report favorably of the government or military. Indeed, there are “media colonies” in every major city of Pakistan, where the Pakistani government has allocated land to journalists on subsidized rates.

He says nobody dares approach him because they know he will expose them.

“The military, the Taliban, and other stakeholders … now know the importance of media coverage. They know [that] without journalists, they cannot achieve their desired objectives, and hence we are sometimes threatened and other times offered bribes,” Mr. Dawar says.

Zaman Khan, an activist working for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, adds, “The government and intelligence agencies have billions of rupees of secret funds as reported by the press itself. This money is used to buy allegiance of journalists and therefore to silence them against the authorities.”

Mr. Khan points, also, to the unsolved case of Saleem Shahzad, who was abducted from Islamabad and found dead last year.

“Except for Daniel Pearl, who was a foreign journalist, none of the journalist murders have been solved,” Khan says, adding that the underlying reason is monetary corruption in the ranks of media, which creates divisions.

Abbas Nasir, former editor for Dawn, the largest English daily paper in Pakistan, is well known for his clean track record as a journalist. He says the solution to solve media corruption isn’t a simple one.

“Media owners will have to demonstrate to their journalists that only professional considerations guide their own decisions. ... Then they can demand the same of the journalists working in their teams. Journalists should be paid as well as possible but held to exacting standards.” 

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