Disappearing Journalists: Who is Behind all this?

Disappearing journalists
Husain Haqqani
The Nation, November 22, 2006

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents more than half a million journalists in over 115 countries, has described the state of press freedom in Pakistan as “rapidly skidding towards lawlessness,” and entering a state of crisis. During the last six months, Pakistan has seen four journalists killed and each of the four cases remains unsolved. The younger brothers of two journalists were brutally murdered, as if to teach the older brothers a lesson. In addition, four journalists were reportedly detained and tortured by intelligence agencies.

The latest victim of what Amnesty International calls “enforced disappearances” is Dilawar Khan Wazir, a BBC Urdu service reporter in Pakistan’s tribal region of South Waziristan. He has not been heard of since leaving Islamabad for home on the morning of Monday, November 20. On November 1, the body of Mohammad Ismail, Islamabad bureau chief for Pakistan Press International (PPI) was found near his home in Islamabad with his head smashed. Ismail had no money or known enemies and it is unlikely that he was killed during a robbery or as a result of any personal conflict.

On September 15, Maqbool Hussain Sail, correspondent of the news agency Online, died on the way to hospital after being shot by unidentified attackers. Sail was reportedly on his way to meet a local leader of the opposition Pakistan People Party (PPP) when he was shot.

Earlier, in June, the body The Nation’s North Waziristan correspondent Hayatullah Khan was discovered six months after his abduction, which had followed his news reports exposing as false the government account of the killing of an Al-Qaeda member in the tribal areas. The government had claimed that Abu Hamza Rabia was killed in explosion caused by bombs that he was making. Hayatullah Khan produced photos that established conclusively that Rabia was killed by US-made missiles fired from an unmanned CIA aircraft.

Munir Ahmed Sangi, cameraman for the Sindhi-language Kawish Television Network (KTN), was fatally shot on May 29 while covering a story on a gunfight between members of the Unar and Abro tribes in the town of Larkana, in Sindh. IFJ believes that Sangi may have been targeted because of reports by KTN and the Sindhi newspaper Kawish on the punishment of a boy and a girl by a local Jirga (tribal council). Sangi’s reports contradicted the claims of the Pakistan government about advancing “enlightened moderation” just as Hayatullah’s reporting questioned the veracity of official claims about its role in the global war against terrorism.

Another journalist with the Sindhi newspaper Kawish, Mehruddin Marri, was abducted on June 27, only to be released on October 24 after four months of torture by military intelligence officers. Saeed Sarbazi was abducted by intelligence agencies on September 20 and returned late in the evening of September 22. He was reportedly beaten and kicked in addition to being blindfolded for over 50 hours and prohibited from eating or sleeping.

Geo News reporter Mukesh Rupeta and freelance cameraman Sanjay Kumar went missing on March 6, after being detained by Pakistani authorities for videotaping the Jacobabad airbase, in Sindh. Nothing more was heard from Rupeta and Kumar by their employers or family until June 22, when their arrest was officially announced and they were admitted to hospital because of their deteriorating health. They were released on bail on June 23. One of the founders of the Balochi-language TV station Baloch Voice, Munir Mengal, is still missing after disappearing on April 7.

Since the October military takeover, the present regime has presented itself as a benignly authoritarian establishment that allows freedom of the media. On several occasions, General Musharraf has cited his patience of diverse opinions in the media to justify that his administration is more democratic in spirit than previous elected civilian governments. But in reality, the Pakistani authorities’ policies over the last six years can best be described as “selective repression.”

There is no doubt that civilian politicians, such as Mian Nawaz Sharif, had a low threshold for personal criticism – a fact I know personally from my detention during his second term. Mr Sharif, and during the 1970s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, used blunt instruments of coercion against well known media critics, creating a widely held perception of repression. Pakistan’s generals, beginning with the late General Ziaul Haq, learnt a lesson from the resentment built against the civilian leaders as a result of their high profile actions against the media. Both Ziaul Haq and Musharraf have shown the ability to accept personal criticism and have avoided taking action against well-known critics, especially ones whose writings are unlikely to foment a revolution in the first place.

The generals’ model of media control is to target poor but well informed reporters not known to the English speaking urban gentry. If the worst truth about regime policies does not come out from where the action actually takes place –Waziristan, Larkana, remote parts of Balochistan—then the state machinery can continue to harp on its broad mindedness. Internationally well known media personalities can criticise the regime, while at the same time securing for it high marks for allowing the criticism. But the criticism must be of the drawing room variety, covering issues that do not cause the masses to question the military’s authority.

The model of media control under this government has been to make examples of reporters on ground that would then make others toe the line. Media freedom since 1999, though considerable, has still been within well-defined parameters. The parameters for the English language media have been wider than for the vernacular press. Multiple TV channels have been opened without giving credit to the elected leaders under whom the concept of private television channel ownership was first mooted. Many more topics have been opened to discussion on radio and TV, and criticising the President has been allowed quite widely.

At the same time, key issues have still been kept out of bounds or subject to self-censorship by owners of media outlets. The government wants to arrogate to itself the right of identifying issues over which it might be criticised. Touchy subjects include discussion of the role of Pakistan’s invisible government, the intelligence services, and the corruption or self-aggrandisement of this regime’s key figures.

Human rights and sovereignty violations in the war against terrorism must be kept under wraps. The dirty war against fellow Pakistanis in Balochistan cannot be reported except in vague and general terms. Opinions critical of the military regime are allowed but facts that back up these opinions must not be revealed. That way, those in authority can keep reassuring their international backers and domestic supporters that all is well and the ranting of critics in the media is only the expression of frustration by opinionated semi-politicians bearing a grudge against them or their appointees.

Historically, the sensitivity of a regime in Pakistan to dissent and truth telling is often directly proportional to its feelings of vulnerability. Overt repression is less in days of self-confidence and more in periods of insecurity. The current rise in murder and abduction of journalists speaks volumes about the anxiety of Pakistan’s current rulers over their ability to continue to indefinitely control the unfortunate people of Pakistan.
E-mail: hhaqqani@nation.com.pk

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