For some years now, Pakistan has continued to figure in international surveys as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Seventy of them have been killed in the past six years alone — at a phenomenal rate of nearly one a month — according to Freedom Network, a Pakistan-based media and development sector watchdog.
There is little doubt that the media, which has redefined the contours of state power ever since playing a vanguard role in the ouster of General Parvez Musharraf following a revolution of sorts in the summer of 2007, is considered by a resentful security establishment, the government, and the extremists as the last frontier.
However, there is a classic paradox at work here: while each of these three are loathe to the media's power and reach — the refrain is that it is an unrestrained genie out of the bottle — they all want to use it because of the same reach to advance their agendas.
The killing of three media assistants belonging to the Express Group, one of the top dogs of the industry with a countrywide footprint in both electronic and print media, on January 17 has once again brought into sharp focus a subject that many of the stakeholders would rather brush under the carpet.
Even though journalists have been eliminated with impunity before — to be sure, the New Year dawned with the fatal shooting of Abb Takk TV journalist Shan Dahar by still unknown assailants in Larkana, Sindh — what makes the killing of the Express Group employees chilling is that the Taleban openly claimed the attack and threatened the media to fall in line.
Tehreek-e-Taleban (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan audaciously told Express News talk show host Javed Chaudhry on phone that the TV channel was "warned" earlier to "stay away" from propaganda against the Taleban.
"We accept responsibility. I would like to present some of its reasons: At present, Pakistani media is playing the role of (enemies and spread) venomous propaganda against Tehreek-e-Taleban. They have assumed the (role of) opposition. We had intimated the media earlier and warn it once again that (they must) side with us in this venomous propaganda," Ehsan said.
If the media had been spared the TTP's wrath until now, it was primarily because it felt it was getting its way. For a long time, the perception has been that the extremists "prime time" their mayhem, fully cognizant of how the networks go cantering to be the first to bring live pictures. However, they are now upset with this medium because the narrative that they were propounding for so long — with takers either by design or fear — has been increasingly coming under the microscope. In fact, some prominent TV hosts like Hamid Mir have counter-attacked the narrative and, in condemning the Taleban openly even called them "not humans".
Mir, it may be recalled, escaped unhurt after he found a bomb planted under his car in 2012 and continues to receive threats, but remains undeterred and even more outspoken, not shy of naming even the country's security agencies for playing their own games to keep the media in check.
Having said that, the vicious cycle begins at source: there is no discernable unity of purpose amongst the media houses — with the biggest of them guilty of continuing to stick to a policy of anonymity, skipping the name of the "rival" channel or publication when mentioning casualties!
Where they seem united is in showing a callous disregard for the safety of their own personnel. In a country where news-breakers continue to become news themselves with an alarming frequency, it is incredulous that they don't prioritize the security of their workers.
Few media outlets are willing to spend on a security regime that would take care of training journalists to be safe, mark clear distinction between what is doable and what is not.
The same level of indifference is evident where the state is concerned with the result that journalists sit on a virtual tinderbox: in the line of fire from both the Taleban and their like, on the one hand; and the deep state, on the other. The apathy was manifest in how Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan recently removed the only two police guards that were placed to protect the National Press Club in Islamabad!
It beggars belief that more than a hundred journalists and media workers have been killed since Nine Eleven, but not a single perpetrator has been brought to book. So what do they do, living in such present and clear danger?
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.