South Asia Record Investigating Violence Against Scribes Is Dismal
NEW DELHI: This week, the world marked the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, with the sad realisation that most cases of violence against media personnel remain uninvestigated. According to the UN, in the past decade 700 journalists have been killed, with no convictions in nine out of ten cases.
The Indian subcontinent figures on the fag end of the list for media freedom and safety. According to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, India ranks 140th in the world; Pakistan ranks 158th, Bangladesh 146th, Sri Lanka 165th, and Nepal performs the best of the lot at a still lowly 120.
Here’s a look at media freedom in South Asia.
Last year, the plight of journalists in Pakistan has received widespread attention, following the killing of a prominent Pakistani television anchor, Hamid Mir, in Karachi. Other attacks in the same year included the gunning down of two journalists and one media worker from a news agency were gunned down by unknown assailants in Quetta. In March, noted columnist and TV anchor Raza Rumi’s car was attacked, and Rumi survived the attack, his driver succumbed to injuries. Rumi’s name was on a list issued by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in February last year, targeting journalists who were opposed to the government’s dialogue with the banned militant outfit. The TTP also issued death threats to journalist and South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) Secretary General Imtiaz Alam.
Peshawar bureau chief of Express News, Jamshed Bhagwan, has been targeted twice, with a 2.5kg of explosives being found outside his house and grenades being thrown at his residence. The same year, Express News’ live van was fired at in Karachi, resulting in the death of three members of the network’s news crew.
2015 was no better. Within a span of 24 hours in September, three separate attacks targeted journalists. Former Geo News business reporter Aftab Alam was killed outside his home in Karachi by two gunmen. A Geo News technician was killed in Karachi when gunmen opened fire on a broadcast van belonging to the privately owned station. In July, Unidentified armed men in Pakistan abducted the Karachi bureau chief of the TV channel Geo News.
Last year, a report by “Reporters Without Borders” on press freedom in the world’s countries, ranked Pakistan a low 158 of a 180 countries in terms of media freedom. The report, which measured the level of freedom of information, recorded seven journalists being murdered in connection with their work in 2013 in Pakistan. Four of them - Mohammad Iqbal of News Network International, Saifur Rehman and Imran Shaikh of Samaa News andMehmood Ahmed Afridi – were killed in Balochistan, which the report called Pakistan’s “deadliest province.”
The report further highlighted the role of the Taliban, militants and armed groups, but also the military apparatus, and agreed with international observers in calling it a “state within the state.” It also singled out intelligence agencies operating in Pakistan, especially Pakistan’s official Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in connection with posing a threat to journalists by “spying on media personnel, abducting them, torturing them and even murdering them.”
The reports reflects an environment of impunity, threats by intelligence agencies or attacks by non-state actors, all contributing to a security situation that compromises media freedom and targets the safety and security of media personnel.
In addition to threats by militants, journalists point to the role of Pakistan’s security agency - the ISI. “It is an open secret among journalists across the country that their phones are either tapped or can be by the intelligence, whenever they feel like it,” writes Rabia Mahmood for Al Jazeera. Mahmood refers to the intimidation tactics used by the Pakistani intelligence, giving the example of a journalist friend who was told clearly that if he would not stop reporting on the plight of Baloch people, his religious affiliation - of an Ahmadi - will be made public.
Journalist Saleem Shahzad’s death, according to many, can be linked to the ISI. In 2011, Shahzad vanished after writing about links between Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Navy. His body, which was found a few days later showed visible signs of torture. The journalist reportedly told friends and colleagues that he has been warned by intelligence agents to not report on security matters. In October 2010, Shahzad sent Dayan Hasan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Pakistan a note describing a meeting at the headquarters of the ISI directorate where he had been threatened, stating that the note was being sent “in case some thing happens to me or my family in the future.” In July 2011, The New York Times reported that US officials had credible information linking the ISI to Shahzad’s murder, whilst Pakistan’s official commission of inquiry concluded that the perpetrators were unknown.
In 2012, two Taliban gunmen opened fire on journalist Mukarram Khan Atif. Although the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing on grounds that Atif had been warned not to continue his “anti-Taliban” reporting, many believe that the ISI were actually behind the murder. Atif had reportedly told friends and relatives that he had received threats from military and intelligence officials immediately after covering a November 2011 attack by US led NATO forces on Pakistani army check posts at Salala, near the Afghan border.
According to data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992. This figure is probably conservative, as CPJ focuses on figures where there is a “motive confirmed,” i.e., “ a journalist was murdered in direct reprisal for his or her work; was killed in crossfire during combat situations; or was killed while carrying out a dangerous assignment such as coverage of a street protest.”
Amnesty International also issued a report that concluded that Pakistan’s authorities have almost “completely failed” to protect journalists, detailing 34 cases of journalists being killed since 2008. “Journalists in Pakistan live under the constant threat of killings, harassment and other violence from all sides, including intelligence services, political parties and armed groups like the Taliban,” the report said.
In Pakistan, according to CPJ, 56 journalists have been killed since 1992; 32 journalists have been murdered; of which 30 were murdered with impugnity.
This week, yet another secular blogger was hacked to death in Bangladesh. Publisher and secular blogger Faisal Arefin Dipan was killed in Shahbagh area while three others, also publishers and bloggers, were hacked and shot in Lalmatia area.
In May this year, blogger-activist Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered in northeastern Sylhet in Bangladesh by unknown assailants.
Before that, atheist blogger Avijit Roy who was hacked to death in February, and blogger Washiqur Rahman was killed a month later in Dhaka.
In all the cases, the government and police have come under scrutiny. Roy’s death, for instance, prompted the country’s Law Commission to comment on the “general” and “helpless” way people are being targeted in the country that has, in turn, compromised faith in the judicial system. Roy’s wife, who suffered head injuries and lost a thumb in the attack, had initially pointed to police failure in preventing the attack. “While Avijit and I were being ruthlessly attacked, the local police stood close by and did not act,” Rafida told Reuters. Now, we demand that the Bangladeshi government do everything in its power to bring the murderers to justice.”
Roy’s father, Ajay Roy, also accused the police of negligence in the crime and said officers allowed the attackers to escape, adding that he was "not satisfied" with the investigation.
Tragically, these three deaths are not an aberration. They follow a string of attacks on writers, bloggers and journalists in the country. According to the “2014 World Press Freedom Index” released by Reporters Without Borders in January this year, Bangladesh ranked a low 146 of 180 nations. Ahmed Rajib Haider, an atheist blogger was hacked to death on February 2013, by machete-wielding activists from a militant group associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami party. Haider, an architect by profession, ran a blog that was instrumental in demanding trials for the perpetrators of the mass killings during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, a move that was widely seen as aimed at radical Islamists. Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, two well-known married Bangladeshi journalists were stabbed to death in February 2012; the motive is still to be determined. Another blogger, Asif Mohiuddin, was stabbed and accused of blasphemy.
In Bangladesh, according to CPJ, 19 journalists have been killed since 1992; 18 journalists have been murdered; of which 15 have been murdered with impunity.
According to the Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom Index, India ranks 140th in the list, with the Indian subcontinent witnessing the biggest rise in violence for journalists in the Asian region for the second year running. In India, a record number of eight journalists and one media person were killed in 2013. This was twice the 2012 death toll, and more than the total death-toll for Pakistan. The organisation, in its report, states: “Criminal organizations, security forces, demonstrators and armed groups all pose a threat to India’s journalists. The violence and the resulting self-censorship is encouraged by the lack of effective investigations by local authorities, who are often quick to abandon them, and inaction on the part of the federal authorities.”
In India, according to CPJ, 37 journalists have been killed since 1992; 24 journalists have been murdered; of which 23 have been murdered with impunity.
Sri Lanka is 165th in the World Press Freedom Index. The focus of the index for Sri Lanka was Uthayan - which was the target of two violent attacks within the space of 10 days in April. Two of its employees were injured, its printing press was set on fire and the premises were badly damaged. Uthayan received a Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Prize, remaining the only Tamil newspaper not to suspend publishing at any time during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Six of its employees have been killed in connection with their work.
In Sri Lanka, according to CPJ, 19 journalists have been killed since 1992; 10 journalists have been murdered; of which 10 have been murdered with impunity.