Sumpolites | Promises, Promises

The Pakistani government must do more than just promise and make empty assurances to protect journalists and create a free and fair press in the country.

Journalists from Pakistan and from around the world have gathered in Islamabad for the second international conference on “Combating Impunity and Securing Safety of Media Workers and Journalists in Pakistan”.  2014 had been a particularly brutal year for journalists in the country. Freedom Network, a Pakistan based media and development watchdog in its 2014 report on the state of journalism in Pakistan claimed that

14 journalists, media assistants and a blogger killed for their work and dozens injured, kidnapped and intimidated

The report also said that

2014 came to be characterized by a number of troubling developments in the realm of electronic media when laws came to be used formally to browbeat and censure it for the first time, including convicting media houses for treason and blasphemy and punishing them coercively with bans and fines

The conference, so far has managed to get enough attention and promises from the government to ensure safety of the journalists, and enough assurances from ministers on creating a safe, working environment for journalists to work in. Endowments for journalists, training and financial assistance for injured, disabled and martyred journalists have also been promised. The government has so far hit all the right notes.

The moot question, however is, can the government deliver on its many promises of safety when its writ does not run beyond Islamabad and when it is more than obvious that the military and the ISI are calling the shots on security. It should also be kept in mind that both state and “non-state” actors have been involved in terrorising journalists in the past. One of the more beleaguered sections have been journalists trying to report on the state of affairs in Balochistan.

The last decade has been one of the worst for the province. It has been continuously plundered, its people murdered in brutal ways by both state and non state actors and, a genocide has been unleashed on a defenceless population. Reporting on this brutal crackdown by the media has been minimal due to stated and unstated restrictions placed on them in collecting ,verifying and broadcasting information. There has been an active collusion between state agencies like the ISI, the FC and the non-state organs like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to muzzle any open discussion on Balochistan. In the background of such blatant and open censoring of the free press, it is hypocritical on the part of the Pakistani government to assure security, support and financial inducements to an already cowed down journalists fraternity to do their job without fear.

The social media has provided a small window to look into the carnage that continues to take place in Balochistan, but this window is not accessible to all. Baloch activists on Facebook, twitter and blogs have provided information that mainstream newspapers have not been able to. A small section of international journalists have used the information coming from these platforms to disseminate information on the province. Unfortunately, this information, given in bits and pieces does not carry the complete picture to watchers in the western world and it is easier for them to turn a blind eye. US and EU organizations that call for greater freedom for the press and better security for journalists need to use this opportunity to bring Pakistan to task. Glib assurances of safety, security for independent minded journalists and media personnel is not sufficient. There are too many skeletons literally and figuratively, hidden in the governments cupboards to give a free hand for investigative journalism. 

The concerns of the journalists have to be addressed in more concrete manners. The government must demonstrate that it has the will and the ability to follow up on the promises made to the journalists. The assurances given thus far look more like attempts to purchase journalists, than a sincere effort to create a body of free, fair and an independent media.