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Sunday July 3, 2011

The heavy price of truth

Journalists working in certain countries face kidnapping, torture and death in their quest to shine a light on strife, injustice, corruption, and terrorism.

SYED Saleem Shahzad lived in Pakistan, a country labelled as the most dangerous in the world for journalists in 2010.

As a reporter, his investigative work on Pakistan’s Islamic militants and the country’s intelligence agents further increased the risks of doing his job in a country battling Islamic insurgents, political instability and economic hardship.

On May 29 this year, he went missing while driving from his home to a TV station in Islamabad, two days after his article alleging al-Qaeda infiltration of the Pakistani navy was published.

In the line of fir e: Pakistani journalists shout slogans during a protest against the killng of their colleague Syed Saleem (below). – EPA

Saleem’s body was found the next day in a canal at Mandi Bahauddin in Punjab, some 200km from Islamabad. “He was a very brave journalist who did not hesitate in venturing out to dangeorus territories to get his stories, and he was one of Pakistan’s best investigative journalists,” says Mehmal Sarfraz, Op-Ed editor of the Daily Times, a popular Pakistani English daily.

Pakistani journalists face threats at every turn from intelligence agencies, pressure groups, religious extremists, militants, terror networks, corrupt officials, and the drugs mafia. It is a potent cocktail of religion, arms and crime.

“If we write something that displeases the religious right, there will be threat from the religious fundamentalists. If we expose the militants, they will harass you,” says Mehmal.

“If we criticise the military, we will have to face the repercussions. If someone exposes land mafia, drugs mafia, betting mafia or other such rackets, we don’t know what the consequences will be,” adds Mehmal.

Since the beginning of this year, eight journalists have been killed in Pakistan, three in suicide bomb attacks, five in mysterious circumstances including kidnapping, and targeted killing, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). Another 10 have been tortured and abducted, mostly in the province of Baluchistan, since January 2011.

“Journalists in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province, are the most harassed group and many journalists have died there, allegedly at the hands of our intelligence agencies,” says Mehmal.

In Karachi, journalists face threats from political parties and sometimes get in the line of fire when ethnic clashes erupt in the metropolis. “Targeted killings are not unheard of and the city has seen a wave of ethnic and political clashes in recent months,” says Mehmal.

On top of the dangers, many journalists, especially in the print media, work without basic facilities, job security, or life insurance. They are also underpaid and overworked. In most of the conflict areas, the majority of the journalists are not given a salary nor are they provided with cameras and other facilities.

“The question of ‘decent wage’ does not exist here in the Pakistani media industry,” says Muhammed Amin Yousuf, secretarygeneral of the PFUJ. While the death of a reporter, photographer, cameraman and other media personnel may make headlines, it seldom translates into justice for the victims and their families. Few perpetrators have ever been caught and punished.

The impunity has only served to embolden governments, militants, the mafia and local warlords in silencing journalists.

“Terrorists and government forces have no regard for journalists and no one is brought to justice for the murder of a journalist, thereby fuelling more of the same,” observes Rodney Pinder, director of the London-based International News Safety Institute (Insi), “Where there is impunity, there is no problem killing a journalist,” he says.

Democracy, and its attendant freedom of expression, do not guarantee the safety of journalists.

The Philippines, a democratic society since People’s Power overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, has a terrible record.

In November 2009, 32 journalists were among those massacred in the southern province of Maguindanao by 100 armed men as they travelled to watch the filing of papers for a candidate to stand elections against a rival clan named Ampatuan.

“The Ampatuan Massacre has been referred to by various international media organisations as the worst single incident of violence against journalists recorded in the world with 32 journalists killed, including one who is still missing and presumed dead,” says Nestor Burgos, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

Ampatuan Sr and one of his sons, Andal Jr, are currently on trial on murder charges. “I believe many democratic institutions in the Philippines are weak and many processes have failed. A true and working democracy should protect journalists because a free press is an integral component of a democratic society,” says Burgos.

The flowering of the Arab Spring, vividly captured by Al Jazeera with their 24-hour no-holds-barred, in-depth broadcasting, has earned praise from viewers but anger from the troubled regimes.

In Egypt, mobs stormed and torched Al Jazeera’s office in Cairo while scores of correspondents were detained and physically attacked.

With a viewing audience of 60 million for Al Jazeera Arabic and the younger Al Jazeera English reaching 250 million households, the Qatar-based broadcaster’s influence is growing by leaps and bounds – to the wariness of some governments in the region.

“Al Jazeera is the most widely watched channel in the region so we are often targeted for special treatment by those who want to restrict the flow of information,” quips Rosie Garthwaite, a producer for Al Jazeera English.

“Al Jazeera was specifically targeted by the government and goons in Egypt as the Arabic station was being broadcast on giant screens in Tahrir Square. It became a source of information, even a rallying cry for protesters, as all other forms of information were restricted,” adds Garthwaite.

The Arab Spring is turning out to be a deadly season for journalists with numerous incidents of deaths, detention and torture. “Journalists have been killed in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and kidnapped and beaten in Libya,” says Insi’s Pinder.

Acclaimed British photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, and Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros were killed in Libya’s western city of Misrata in a mortar attack in April.

Misrata was besieged for weeks and came under frequent aerial bombardments, artillery and sniper attacks as government troops and opposition rebels waged fierce battles.

Before this, Al Jazeera’s senior cameraman, Ali Hassan Al-Jaber, was killed in what appeared to be an ambush near Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi in March.

Despite the dangers and long hours, many idealistic men and women continue to take risks and pursue the profession, believing their reports and pictures can make a difference.

“The only reason to risk your life by going into a danger zone is because you believe you can do some good here. And by shedding light on the world’s dark places, giving a voice to suffering people whose voices are not heard and raising awareness, responsible journalism can do a lot of good,” says Andrew Marshall, former Reuters bureau chief in Iraq.

Marshall was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 at the height of violence which killed several of his staff. “Reckless behaviour and sensationalist journalism in war zones, can, on the other hand, do a lot of harm,” says Marshall.

He recently quit his post as Reuters’ deputy editor for emerging and frontier Asia to write an exposé on the intrigues of Thai politics, the monarchy and the military based on 3,000 leaked US diplomatic cables.

“It would have been very difficult for Reuters to run my story based on thousands of leaked US cables on Thailand because it represents a truly epic breach of Thai law (leste majeste) and the company has more than 1,000 staff in Bangkok,” says Marshall.

“But having seen the cables and knowing their value in stimulating debate and informing the Thai people, I could not have just walked away and failed to try to write something honest about Thailand.”

So he resigned to try to do something good, he says. Reuters says it didn’t publish the story because it had “questions” over its “length, sourcing, objectivity and legal issues”, according to Marshall, who also claims that the story received more than 70,000 hits in the first week it was put on-line.

Marshall’s Thai story can be viewed at http://www.zenjournalist.com/2011/06/thailands- moment-of-truth/

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