“A Path that was Not Paved in Gold, but in Danger”: Freedom of Expression in Pakistan

Pakistani correspondent for the Italian news agency Asnkronos International (AKI) and Asia Times Online, Saleem  Shahzad, was awarded an International Journalism Award by Italy’s Ischia Prize Foundation on 12 June 2011 for his “illuminating analyses of international terrorism” and his commitment to the profession’s “supreme mission for peace and culture.”

This prestigious award, however, was granted to Shahzad posthumously.

 Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered in Pakistan in May 2011 just days after publishing an investigative report on a military attack in Karachi.

 Although Article 19 of the 1973 Pakistani Constitution ensures that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press,” there is substantial speculation that Shahzad was detained and killed by Pakistani intelligence authorities. If true, this emphasizes the government’s continued backhand control of freedom of expression in Pakistan. 

Speculation of violence by government authorities against journalists does not stop with Shahzad. Circa 19 June 2011, a Pakistani journalist working for The Guardian, Waqar Kiani, was severely beaten by uniformed men in Islamabad, just five days after publishing an account of the abduction and torture he suffered by suspected Pakistani intelligence agents. The purpose of the attackers was allegedly to “make an example” out of Kiani, in order to deter other journalists from publishing similar stories on the Pakistani government. Despite the hardship he endured, Kiani held no regrets in releasing his story, “If we don’t bring up the facts, then it’s no longer journalism—we become spokesmen of the government.”

 The International Federation of Journalists, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, and Human Rights Watch have urged the Pakistani Government to establish a judicial commission to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of Shahzad to avoid the case from becoming “yet another example of impunity in Pakistan.”  The Organisations further demanded that the government ensure security for journalists working in Pakistan. Pakistan is ranked 10th on The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 2011 Impunity Index of countries where the perpetrators of violence against journalists go free, with a rating of 0.082 unsolved journalist murders per 1 million inhabitants.

 The Pakistani army has responded to allegations regarding Shahzad and Kiani with a firm denial, stating the claims are “unfounded and baseless.” However the NGO impunity statistics and reports from journalists working within Pakistan make  it hard to believe that the government has played no role in the violence against media personnel in Pakistan. In the case of Saleem Shahzad, the chief suspect is reported to be Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI); Hammed Haroon, president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, stated, in response to this, that “Nobody, not even the ISI should be above the law.”

 Shahzad’s death marks the abduction and killing of the third journalist in Pakistan this year, following the deaths of ten journalists in 2010. The CPJ cited Pakistan as the deadliest in the world for journalists in 2010, who are killed in suicide bombs, political violence and assassination, and as targets of both Islamist militants and government agents. Media personnel have suffered a warring path of threats and exploitation by the Pakistani government and their employers for years. 80% of Pakistani journalists are paid a mere $120-150/month without health benefits and the difficult work environments do not adhere to the country’s labour law standards.

 At the start of June 2011, Pakistan passed a law (Rule 46 of the Punjab Government Rules of Business 2011) to ban government employees from speaking with journalists about official business. Pakistani constitutional law experts state the new law is “arbitrary and against the spirit of the Constitution.”

 Commentators highlight concern of self-censorship, where journalists may begin to realise that to survive, they must stop writing the truth. But as Waqar Kiani stated, “Journalists can’t be silent forever in Pakistan,” and they will not allow the ruthless violence of uniformed men to prevail.

Despite the apparent dangers and poor working conditions, journalists in Pakistan continue to emanate information and to persevere as heroes in the fight for freedom of expression in Pakistan and around the world. Krishna Bharat, founder and head of Google News, whilst speaking at a memorial service for the fallen Pakistani journalists in the Newseum in Washington DC,  described Shahzad and others like him as those who “chose to walk a path that was not paved in gold but in danger.”




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