Comment: The perils of being a journalist in Pakistan

Threatened: Pakistan’s legacy of authoritarianism means that no one pays much attention to the growing roster of threats to journalists. —

BEING a journalist in Pakistan is a dangerous proposition. A noose is put around your neck when you begin and it is tightened gradually as journalists you know are “disappeared” or harassed or murdered outright.

Many of those who manage to stay afloat are targets. The tiniest act of rebellion or upsetting someone powerful can constitute a real threat for the country’s journalists.

Journalist Ajay Laalwani was in a barbershop on the evening of March 18 when two motorcycles and a car with four passengers drove up and sprayed Laalwani with bullets before speeding away. Laalwani was taken to hospital but did not survive the attack. Ashiq Jatoi, the editor of Laalwani’s newspaper, said he believes that Laalwani’s writing and reporting could have motivated the killing. Once again, whether this is true will remain mired in mystery. Past tensions between the reporter and law enforcement were mentioned and the fear that the investigation might not be carried out the way it should was expressed.

In the days before the incident, Laalwani had received threats and was being harassed. Those sharing the news on social media attributed the killing to the well-known “unknown culprits”.

In an effort to show that the case was being taken seriously and investigated, the police announced that a special team had been created to investigate the killing. This in itself is ironic because prior to Laalwani’s killing, the police had been harassing journalists, threatening them with “consequences”.

Of course, it seems fair to say that this case, along with so many others in which journalists have been killed, will not be solved. There are so many cases that require answers. One of them is the killing of Qais Javed who worked for the newspaper Ehadnama. He had also started his own web channel. He was shot dead in Dera Ismail Khan District in December 2020 by “unknown gunmen”. Three months since the killing, there is no sign of the case being solved. Like so many others, Javed is just a number.

The latest to add to the numbers is a young journalist named Waseem Alam who was shot dead in Karak when he was returning home on his motorcycle on April 10; a First Information Report (the first step in an investigation) has been registered.

One can go on and on enumerating the killing and intimidation of Pakistani journalists. One can go on and on about how the cases are never solved. All of it is pointless for the simple reason that everyone knows that those who do not toe the line or are outspoken are targeted and made an example of.

This then is the primitive state of public discourse in Pakistan. Instead of tolerating differing points of view, instead of creating forums where divergent views can be expressed and discussed and a culture of tolerance fostered, the voices of those who disagree are muffled by various actors, state or non-state.

This is not very different from what primitive man faced when he did not agree with his tribe. He would be made an example of to warn the rest of the clan. Those tribes that did this accrued a survival disadvantage. While unity, whether it is tribal or national, is important, survival requires the existence of divergent ideas.

Killing or intimidating journalists in this sense does not simply wreak havoc on the present, it condemns the possibility of the future. Evolution, after all, is based on adaptability and the existence of diversity of thought, and this is impossible without the truth tellers that present the reality of the situation. Without them, only one version of the truth thrives and difference of opinion is exterminated.People in this environment never develop the skills to tolerate words or ideas that are different. Moreover, they risk being duped, as there is no guarantee that the version of the truth that they are told is not actually what is happening in the country.

Pakistan’s legacy of authoritarianism means that no one pays much attention to the growing roster of threats to journalists. With everyone eking out a marginal and precarious existence, few have sympathy to spare for the brave men and women who die or are arrested or face extreme threats because they were not willing to give up on a principle. To those who target journalists, principles such as a belief in the freedom of speech is an indulgence.

An attitude such as this is the consequence of decades of the devaluation of speech, denigration of the bravest in the nation, and a low regard for the truth. In the meantime, the bodies keep piling up, the “unknown” gunmen appearing again and again to kill or kidnap those who have the courage to tell the truth and to believe in a principle. – Dawn/Asia News Network

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching Constitutional law and political philosophy.

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