• Journalism: A dangerous profession
April, 2014

Journalism: A dangerous profession

“Don’t try to become a journalist. It’s a dangerous profession in Pakistan,” my late father said this to me three decades ago when I was still a college student

My father was a Professor of Journalism at the University of Punjab, Lahore; he was also a well known columnist. One day I wrote an article about the problems of students and sent it to a well recognised Urdu newspaper. My article was published on the editorial page. In my article I criticized government policies. My teachers at college and my friends were thrilled at the publication of that article. It was a big achievement for a young student, but my father’s reaction was unusual. He gave me a small and very polite lecture about the hazards of journalism in Pakistan. He had himself faced much pressure after criticizing the policies of the (late) military dictator General Ziaul Haq. He told me very clearly, “the government is not happy with me; some religious fanatics are following me day and night; they may assassinate or poison me.  It is very dangerous to write the truth in Pakistan. You are better off playing cricket and staying away from writing.”

I was disappointed, but within a few months my father’s fears were proved correct when he died under mysterious circumstances. Many human rights activists demanded an autopsy but the government authorities refused to comply, and buried him within a few hours of his death. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never followed my father’s advice. I became a journalist immediately after his death, as per my mother’s wishes. My mother was a brave woman. She even encouraged one of my younger brothers to follow in the footsteps of our father and become a journalist. She is no longer alive or she would see that journalism is still a very dangerous profession in Pakistan. Three decades have passed but the situation is even worse for journalists in Pakistan.

There has undoubtedly been much growth in journalism in the last decade in this country. More and more young people are coming into the profession because they think that the media is independent, and that it is becoming a tool of social change in Pakistan. The fact is that the media is paying a heavy price for its independence. Around 100 journalists have been killed since 9/11 in Pakistan. Many of them were kidnapped and tortured as well. Sometimes we know their killers but those killers are more powerful than the law. I know dozens of journalists who have been forced to quit this profession or leave their home towns. I also knew some journalists who refused to quit the profession or to leave their home towns and they were killed as a result. Physical attacks and threats of violence represent an extreme form of unannounced censorship in Pakistan.  Hayatullah Khan from North Waziristan and Musa Khankhel from Swat told me before they died that they would be killed. I wrote a column about these threats for Musa Khankhel in January 2009. Even so, he was killed in Febraury 2009.

Recently the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued an edict against some media organizations. This edict was authored by Khalid Haqqani, the deputy chief of the TTP.  He especially decorated this edict with pictures of the two journalists he hates the most: one is the famous columnist Hasan Nisar, and the other is myself, Hamid Mir. These days Khalid Haqqani is taking part in the TTP negotiations with the government.

This is not the first time that the TTP has threatened me. They sent me a detailed threatening letter in 2012 when I took a stand against them after they attacked that young campaigner for education, Malala Yousafzai, in Swat. A few days after their threats a bomb was planted under my car and the TTP accepted responsibility for planting the bomb.  The TTP is not the only threat for me and other independent journalists. We are also, and more worried about the double games played and the threats posed by our security agencies. Many times it was the security agencies that kidnapped and killed our colleagues, but they blamed the TTP for it. Both the TTP and our security agencies are enemies of media freedom. The TTP pressurizes the media by accusing us of being anti-Islam. The security agencies try to dictate to the media in the name of patriotism, and when we refuse to listen they declare us “anti-state” through their proxies in the media.

Take my case as an example. I was kidnapped by the ISI in August 1990 just because I filed a story for the Daily Jang saying that the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan had decided to dismiss the government of Benazir Bhutto. I was first declared “anti-state” by the spokesperson of the Pakistan Army on state controlled Pakistan Television (PTV) in 2005. My only crime was that I reached a mountain village of the Neelam Valley of Kashmir.  The Army had not supplied relief goods to this village even two months after the earthquake in 2005. Intelligence agencies reported to the then military dictator Pervez Musharraf that I was maligning the Army on the behest of some enemies. Musharraf ordered the Vice Chief of Army Staff to visit the village in a helicopter and verify the facts, and I was proved right. After some time one of Musharraf’s top aides tried to use me against Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) by offering me Rs150 million for a single television show against him. When I expressed my inability to comply I was threatened and subsequently banned from television in 2007, along with five other TV anchors.

After the departure of Pervez Musharraf I started highlighting the issue of missing persons on my television shows, but I realized that even though Musharraf was gone his policies were intact. I was contacted by the ISI, the country’s powerful intelligence agency. They asked me to ignore the issue of missing persons ‘in the national interest.’ I tried to convince them that I was only performing my professional duty by highlighting violations against the human rights guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan. My explanation was considered to be defiance.  It resulted in an attack on my children when they were going for their tuitions in Islamabad. That attack, so totally below the belt shattered my nerves, but that was not the end.

The ISI tried to involve me in a murder case on the basis of a concocted telephone conversation. Many colleagues started a media campaign against me under pressure from a Naval officer posted in the media wing of the ISI, but nothing was proved against me in any court of law. In December 2011, I received some threatening text messages on my mobile phone. I decided to make all the threats public. A debate was started in our parliament on the subject of threats to the media. The former Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Fehmida Mirza, formed a special committee to investigate the threats to the media. Ahsan Iqbal (now a minister in the PML-N government) was made the Head of that committee. I provided the Speaker with the phone numbers from which the threats originated. After a few days an ISI official visited me and apologized for the “individual acts” of some officers. He said the threats were, “the act of some individuals but the whole institution does not think like that”. Credible sources informed me that powerful officials of the ISI thought I was a security threat because I was highlighting the missing persons issue. They wanted to eliminate me in a road accident. I was forced to change my residence and my vehicles. I did not press the matter because some senior ministers told me very clearly that they could not help me. The special committee of the National Assembly formed to investigate the threats to the media submitted its detailed report to the Speaker on March 13, 2013, but there was no mention in the report of any investigation of the threats made against me.

Journalists in Pakistan do not invite trouble from the TTP and security agencies alone. Sometimes diplomats belonging to powerful countries also become angry with us. Three years ago, when I discussed the alleged activities of Blackwater in Islamabad, the former US ambassador Anne W Patterson wrote a letter against me and my fellow anchor Kamran Khan to the Management of my television channel. Recently, I was informed by that Management that Zaid Hamid, the head of one anti-democracy think-tank tried to hire a person to kill me. This fanatic is well known for his links with intelligence agencies. Sometimes he declares me a “CIA agent,” at other time a “RAW agent” and at yet others “a Taliban agent.” My TV channel filed a case against him in a court of law and provided evidence to prove that some anti-democracy persons/groups,  funded by intelligence agencies, are trying to blackmail the independent media in the name of Islam and patriotism. A Karachi court issued arrest warrants against the accused but he is still at large, because he is very close to powerful intelligence agencies.

Some political parties and religious groups also pressurize the media. Recently a terrorist court announced its verdict in the murder case of a journalist, Wali Khan Babar.  The court convicted some workers of the MQM in the murder of Wali Khan Babar. When I said that the MQM must explain why a sitting member of the national assembly, belonging to the MQM, defended the alleged killers of Wali Khan Babar in court, the MQM leader Altaf Hussain was angry with me.

Many people think that the media is very strong in Pakistan. They think that journalists like me are very influential, but the fact is that I have not been sleeping in the same place twice for about a year now. I am not living a normal family life, only because I am a journalist. If I am living a miserable life in the capital of Pakistan then think of the hundreds of other Pakistani journalists who are working in other areas of conflict. They are more vulnerable than me. They are facing threats day and night from state and non-state sources. The government has failed to provide them with any security.

What should we do? Should we quit this profession? No! We will not, because our readers and viewers are our biggest strength. The people of Pakistan are the best judge. The people know we are fighting for their right to know. We are their hope. Enemies of media freedom cannot silence our voice because we live in the hearts and minds of our people. One thing is clear: we, the journalists, will keep fighting. We will not surrender. It is the constitutional obligation of the government to provide security to the journalistic community. The government is aware of the threats to us from non-state as well as state sources. 

We know that the government is helpless. Democracy is not that strong but we will keep fighting to strengthen democratic forces in Pakistan. We know that Pakistan is the most dangerous place in the world and journalism the most dangerous profession in Pakistan, but we hope that we will defeat terrorism and extremism very soon.

Three decades ago my father advised me to stay away from journalism. Now I am thinking of giving the same advice to my son but I know he will not listen to me and the struggle will continue. The new generation of Pakistanis will not accept this kind of censorship in their homeland.

The writer is the Executive Editor of Geo Television. He writes for the Jang Group. He is an active member of the Pakistan Coalition for Media Safety PCOMS

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