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How Pakistani media survives in a climate of fear

Submitted by on November 24, 2014 – 10:54 amNo Comment

By RAYMOND WHITAKER

Pakistani commentator, Kamran Shafi.

Pakistani commentator, Kamran Shafi.

Threats to the media in Pakistan, where 15 journalists have been killed during 2014, were graphically described at a meeting organised by the Commonwealth Journalists Association at the University of London on November 7.

Kamran Shafi, a former army officer and diplomat turned columnist and TV commentator, regularly receives threats to himself and his family – “You are dead … You will be shot and dragged on the streets,” said one – and has had shots fired outside his home. Only two days before he spoke, Jewan Arain, a journalist working for the Dharti TV channel, was killed on his way to work in Sindh province.

Shafi told the well-attended gathering of journalists, academics, human rights workers and students that the media in Pakistan was most at risk when it clashed with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the “state within a state” which remains in power whether the government is civilian or military. The shots outside his home came when he called in print for the ISI to be headed by a civilian.

When the country’s biggest TV channel, Geo, dared suggest that the ISI might have been behind an assassination attempt on its highest profile anchor, the ISI simply called for the channel to be taken off air, and it was. The move has had a significant chilling effect. While Geo TV has seen its audience share and profits squeezed, other channels have understood the ISI’s message, and Pakistan’s TV journalists are more timid today than they were.

The speaker, a former Press Secretary to the late Benazir Bhutto and Minister (Press) at the High Commission in London, emphasised that he was “no fan” of Geo, whose charges had been completely wrong. There was a media “free for all” in Pakistan, with reckless claims being made without regard to the facts. Journalists were subject to the whims of media owners, who encouraged sensationalism to boost circulation and viewing figures. Although many codes of ethics had been drawn up, they were neither adhered to nor enforced.

Shafi has written columns for the Friday Times, The Nation, The News, and Dawn
since the late 1980s, and has been with Express-Tribune since 2011. He eloquently described the relations between the media and the authorities in Pakistan as “wheels within wheels, shadows within shadows, mirrors and more mirrors”. Although it was possible for the ISI and the civilian Intelligence Bureau to trace electronic threats to journalists, this did not happen: threats were made when “you say something they don’t like”. Although the writer said he had been vociferously anti-Taliban, no threats had come from that quarter. He had hopes that the new ISI chief, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, whom he described as “a very bright man”, would take a softer line.

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