We work despite Taliban threats, say Pakistani journalists

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Photo: flickr/Binuri Ranasinghe

"War. Unending internal war," said Dawn.com editor Jahanzaib Haque when I asked him where he saw Pakistani media heading in the foreseeable future. "No one likes to work in an environment where their colleagues are gunned down and there is a state of constant threat."

This unending war became uncomfortably real for Haque in January when, in the third of a series of attacks, three of his Express News colleagues (where Haque was then web editor) were killed in their office van.

Shortly after, the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) called into an Express live show to claim responsibility.

"Such attacks were always a possibility, but a very distant one. There was no policy for what to do in such a situation. The office was ill-prepared for the first and second attacks, but now [after the third attack] the building looks like a fortress," said Haque.

Management was quick to respond. No longer would the Express Tribune run stories or publish images, which could potentially offend Islamic extremist groups like the TTP. Instead, it would acquiesce to the Taliban's violent demands for 'balanced reporting' by left-leaning, private media groups like Express.

But, a senior journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, scoffed at the notion of balanced reporting on extremists.

"The Taliban are killers and don't deserve any kind of political space which could be used to legitimize their cause. There's no 'balance' so to speak when the other side is threatening to blow you away if you don't carry their point of view. That's not balance, that's bullying."

Freelance journalist Taha Siddiqui also doesn't think 'balanced' journalism is possible and cautioned the media to not regurgitate Pakistani Taliban's wrong interpretation of Islam as a different interpretation of Islam.

"The media -- after these threats -- has started inviting Taliban-apologists to TV to claim that such terror acts are not done by the Taliban but by foreign agencies. By propagating such conspiracies, they make the public feel sympathetic towards the Taliban as [being] Muslim brothers fighting an imperialist force…"

A race to conservatism

Pakistan's media has traditionally been divided into Urdu and English. According to Siddiqui "even though English media is restricted to print it is doing a good job" and Urdu media, which has historically been right wing conservative, "may become even more radicalized" following the trajectory of an increasingly-radicalizing Pakistani society.

In fact, almost all journalists interviewed see both Pakistani media and society moving towards an increasing conservatism.

"Extremism has affected every sphere of [Pakistan] and it is foolish to assume that [journalists] will get protection when the rest of the country is directly bearing the consequences of being targeted by militants," said one journalist. "What needs to be understood is that journalists are ultimately citizens of the country and everybody needs protection from this menace."

For some, this race to conservatism has them running backwards and straight out of the country.

"Those who can afford to move abroad are doing it. Many journalists and editors keep their families outside of the country. And many privately owned channels broadcast from outside Pakistan too for safety reasons," said a senior editor on conditions of anonymity.

Nilo Haq, Editor-In-Chief of two widely read beauty blogs, is wholly immersed in the Pakistani fashion and beauty industry but lives and works from outside of the country.

Admitting that working from the outside makes it easier for her "in terms of safety, independence and scope of work" she was quick to dismiss the effect of self-censorship (recently plaguing many journalists and media outlets) on Pakistan's currently most burgeoning -- and least -- conservative industry: fashion.

Even though newspapers like Express Tribune once ran glossy features profiling high society events and fashion shoots with models clad in outfits worthy of giving any Islamist a coronary, such publications have been forced to self-censor and cut back on such coverage in light of recent Pakistani Taliban threats and attacks.

But Haq thinks the fashion industry is not concerned nor affected by such self-censorship.

"I don't think designers are concerned with their models being 'too much' for Pakistani society because they cater to a niche [within Pakistan] and to South Asians abroad. Pakistan's fashion industry is moving fast and they don't care for the 'right-wingers'," said Haq.

Still, Haq personally chooses to carefully cater to her readership, which extends to Saudi Arabia, making sure images are 'clean', and "women are not showing too much cleavage, leg or stomach out of respect for society".

Self-censorship

Presently, the Express Tribune, which is the nation's most widely read online publication has prohibited any reporting that may offend opposing terrorist attacks, religious militant organizations or right-wing political parties.

According to head of Express Tribune blogs Erum Shaikh, while the publication did as much as possible "to keep the vision of the paper alive and remain true to its readers", not all its regular contributors were able to get on board with the changes. In response to the new editorial policy, one writer asked "what am I to do -- start writing about cooking or films? Because that's all that's left."

But for Shaikh more puzzling than the attacks itself was the muted response and apathy of fellow Pakistanis.

"An attack on a journalist [is] an attack on the freedom of speech and right to information. The fact that as a country we don't realize that is scary. That state of disunity is scary -- not the attacks," Shaikh lamented.

A freelance journalist speaking on conditions of anonymity spoke of frustration with Pakistan's justice system. "No one has been prosecuted for killing a journalist in Pakistan, except in the Daniel Pearl case and the killing of journalist Wali Baber Khan. When no one does anything it sends a signal that these bastards can get away with anything. Literally, anything."

Yet despite strong sentiments on extremism's adverse impact on their field, many journalists continue to succumb to self-censorship.

Siddiqui spoke of veiled threats he received by the various coercive forces operating in Pakistan presently -- both state and non- state actors complicit in forcing journalists to double back on their words.

"When I was working for local media a few years ago. I had to write security forces instead of Pakistan Army in stories about their activities since the newspaper did not want to point out the Pakistan Army. I [also] once received 'friendly advice' from a military contact to not pursue a story that he considered not worth covering - it was about Sunni militant groups in Pakistan. I resorted to self-censorship in that story," he said.

"[By religious] militants -- I have been told to 'stop working for the foreign media because it is owned by infidels which makes me an infidel too…"

Trapped between radicalization and democratization

Being a journalist in Pakistan was not always such a sordid affair.

Once upon a time, the likes of Noam Chomsky and political analyst Christine Fair lauded Pakistan for its "open, free and vibrant media" calling it an example for fellow Muslim nations to follow.

The media reform laws of 2002 were instrumental in bringing positive change as privately held media proliferated to do what state-controlled media had previously opted not to by propelling the voice of historically excluded populations into the public sphere, amping up coverage of the country's thriving fashion, entertainment and arts industry, and helping further democracy.

"Today, the workplace hazards for such private outlets are a drop-down list of 'harmless self-censorship', 'casual violence', or 'cold-blooded murder'," a journalist wishing to remain anonymous darkly joked.

Despite constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression -- a basic premise underlying media freedom -- according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Pakistan is "one the world's most dangerous countries for the press" with eleven journalists killed in 2013 alone.

"Democracy isn't just the right to vote or the right to run for political office. Democracy's highest tenet is freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to be free to publish and be free of self-censorship. Pakistani democracy is of a poor quality. We Pakistani journalists are not free," said one freelance journalist on conditions of anonymity.

A toughening newsbeat

Prior to the deadly Express attacks, there were reports of senior journalists and even their office staff receiving threatening phone calls and text messages from the TTP.

"Right now the Taliban are making gains in their media-savvy. They follow what is said or written about them -- Urdu and English content," said one journalist.

While the Taliban continue to sophisticate their trolling operations, media-walay across the board are making the same please for fragmented media rivals to coalesce and protect one another.

"Unless journalists raise a collective voice, it is only a matter of time before another attack. There is strength in numbers," said one editor.

"The dangers in the job are huge and therefore only those passionate to report the truth should become part of it," said Siddiqui. "Most reporters in Pakistan make less than 500 dollars a month on an average, which is nothing to put their life [at] risk."

Since this piece was published yesterday, a prominent journalist at the Express News was attacked. His driver was killed and his bodyguard is in critical condition. You can read more here.

Maria Kari is a writer and law student from Vancouver, B.C. Follow her on Twitter: @mariakari1414.

Photo: flickr/Binuri Ranasinghe

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