January 14, 2018: End this culture of impunity (Daily Times)

Pakistani journalists and activists continue to face intimidation and violence. Worse, they have to deal with a culture of impunity that impedes justice and keeps the dissenting voices under check.

Recently, Taha Siddiqui, an Islamabad based journalist was taught a lesson for his outspoken views; especially those pertaining to the Republic’s holy cows. Taha escaped an abduction attempt. He was lucky. Many in the past have not been so fortunate. Indeed, dozens of journalists have died in the past decade and scores of activists have gone missing. Taha was dragged from a cab, threatened and may have disappeared had he not undertaken a harrowing escape. His case is before the Islamabad Police but given past records – it remains uncertain as to whether his potential abductors will ever be identified, let alone punished.

Taha is my friend and colleague and I have seen him evolve into a fearless journalist. It is always great to see younger Pakistanis speaking up and highlighting things that many are afraid to mention. This was both exciting and promising, for Pakistan needs more people who have the courage to speak and write the truth. However, my personal brush with death in 2014 slightly changed my view. I cautioned him on multiple occasions regarding the real and present dangers. But he was as undaunted and he was even more inspirational for me. A strange sort of vicarious fulfilment, perhaps. It did not last long.

In 2017, Taha was questioned by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) over his media-related work, especially his online activities. Throughout 2017, digital spaces were under attack in one form or another. Taha braved that incident and spoke up, went to court and told everyone that he was being harassed. And now he could have been harmed. I shudder to think what would have happened had his escape not been successful.

The time has come to constitute a special parliamentary commission to take up the cases of journalists and bloggers who have been roughed up, attacked or killed

One can disagree with Taha’s work, or even the tenor of his online postings but nothing – I repeat, nothing – justifies this response. Censorship and physical intimidation are not limited to individual voices. In fact such tactics harm society, the civic institutions necessary for a democratic polity and end up shrinking citizen freedoms.

Abuse and hate have followed Taha’s public narration of his ordeal. Many have questioned the details of his story including fellow journalists. The usual patriotic brigade on social media is churning out insulting memes undermining his reputation and credibility. This is a plainly insensitive response to a family that must have been traumatised and an idealistic young man shaken to his core. This is what feeds into this prevailing culture of impunity.

In 2017, five bloggers and online activists were picked up, released after torture and no one knows who did it. It is painful to realise that people one has known over the years are now struggling to straighten their lives abroad. Another fearless reporter, Rana Tanveer, whose work on minorities brought him into much trouble, has also left the country and is facing major life upheaval. Some Pakistanis, especially those who question people’s patriotism, have no clue that living abroad is no proverbial bed of roses; particularly when you are engaged in meaningful work at home.

Also in 2017, journalist affiliated with the Jang Group, Ahmed Noorani, was attacked and given a little ‘dose’ of how to behave. Prior to this, another journalist at Waqt news, Matiullah Jan, was attacked while he was out driving with his family. His car’s windscreen was broken with bricks. Imagine how terrified his children must have been. In June 2017, Aizaz Syed of Geo News was also manhandled by ‘unknown assailants.’ There are countless others whom we forget in FATA, Balochistan and Sindh who are routinely hounded.

It is not difficult to find out who these unknown attackers are. Technological tools are available but what is missing is the political will of the political elites who are afraid or, worse, indifferent. The Saleem Shahzad inquiry commission report had advised the government of the day to remedy the “systemic causes of tension between agencies and the media”. There was a long list of recommendations given but sadly nothing was implemented. Perhaps it is time to revisit these. Drafting new laws to protect journalists will do nothing if the executive authorities and the justice system will not discharge their mandates.

Perhaps the time has come to constitute a special parliamentary commission to take up the cases of Siddiqui, Tanveer, Jan, Noorani, Syed, the bloggers and all others who have been roughed up, attacked or killed. This commission should work on the implementation of the guidelines given by Saleem Shahzad inquiry commission. Incidentally, the head of that commission is the incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan.

If the Pakistani state wants to increase citizen trust, create a tolerant society and improve its foreign ‘image’ – then ending this culture of impunity might be the first step. Otherwise we shall continue to hold that dreadful label as world’s most dangerous country for journalists.

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