It has been a month since I survived a lethal attack aimed to silence me forever. The support of my family, friends and colleagues has been monumental in dealing with the trauma, especially that of seeing young Mustafa die — an unfortunate victim of the bullets that the assailants fielded for me. The Punjab Police have reportedly apprehended a gang that has been carrying out such activities. It remains to be seen if the creaky, dysfunctional criminal justice system will deliver justice. Nevertheless, the efforts of the police have been commendable in tracing and arresting the alleged attackers.
Much has happened in the last month. Halfway, I had to leave the country given the sense of insecurity that surrounded my daily life and the potential power of those who attempted to kill me. The issue of journalists’ security remains a huge question mark for the government in power as another colleague from Geo TV was brutally attacked on April 19. The core issues since then have been sidelined and the politics of blaming Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency has overshadowed everything else. Is there freedom of speech in Pakistan? How much of it is granted and what are the lines that cannot be crossed by journalists?
The divided media industry is more of a threat to media workers now. I do remember that the assassination attempt on me and the death of a young man from a poor family and a sole breadwinner, did not move the Jang Group in the least. For that matter, what was happening to Express Group invited almost no coverage or debate from other channels. I did not follow the media coverage much as my trauma was too intense to monitor such developments.
Geo has tried to make amends and has mentioned the attacks on Express (including me) only when one of its staffers was attacked and its controversial reporting on the ISI invited widespread adverse reactions in print, electronic and most notably social media. This is somewhat encouraging but much more would need to be done by all stakeholders in moving towards safeguarding the freedoms that the Pakistani media has earned after a long struggle and countless sacrifices.
The response of the government and the prime minister has also been curious. I am not a conspiracy theorist who would jump to the conclusion that the ruling party is backing a particular channel and its tirade against the ISI. However, it is intriguing that in the case of Express Group no such alacrity was shown by the prime minister. This group has been attacked almost half a dozen times — how many rewards have been announced for identifying the killers? How many speedy, high-powered commissions have been set up to investigate who terrorise the media workers? I write these lines in my personal capacity and am not speaking for the group as such. Yet, as a citizen and a politics watcher, I cannot help but wonder if the four loss of innocent lives from Express Group were not worthy of the prime minister’s attention. Most importantly, I have been struggling to set up a fund for my slain driver’s family, but there has been no compensation announced for his family by either the provincial or the federal government. Was he not a victim of terror? Or should his family name the ISI as the potential attacker to gain sympathy and action?
The government is in charge of Pakistan’s security and as clichéd as it sounds, there can be no escape from this bare fact. Sadly, it has been wavering on this front. Moreover, when it comes to media workers’ plight, it is the responsibility of the government to act and show that decisive steps have been taken.
Is it unfair to expect that the government of the day would take stock of the dire situation that prevails with respect to journalists’ safety? In 2013, eight journalists were killed and in 2014 four have been killed so far. Are these innocent lives so unimportant that they don’t move the elected officials? Media freedoms differentiate an authoritarian regime from a democratic one and for all the rhetoric of trying Musharraf and burying dictatorships, these facts show that the democracy we live in is far from perfect.
I am not an apologist for the way our media houses operate. Their own failings to protect and insure staffers are all too well known. More so, the apparent lack of unity in the ranks of the media industry is alarming. Currently, many media outlets are trying to outdo each other in terms of their respect and patriotism towards national institutions. The conduct of some colleagues has also been questionable and betrays the declining values of our society. Our pluralistic and humanistic legacies are seriously under attack and the media is only reflecting what is happening in the society at large.
All said and done, the buck stops at the door of the civilian government(s). They will have to ensure that the security environment improves. One wonders whatever happened to the National Internal Security Policy and its implementation? The provincial governments have no excuse to not usher in long delayed police reforms and now that political activism of the Courts has halted, perhaps, it is time to look at the millions of trials that await adjudication. For how long we shall remain beholden to non-state actors who kill civilians and uniformed men with impunity?
May 3 is commemorated as World Press Freedom Day