Pakistan Media under Religious Extremism. (How Media Creates Enemies)

Article excerpt

Perhaps, the most tragic example of the hazards faced by the media operating under the heavy cloud of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan is the kidnap and murder of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The South Asia bureau chief was apparently targeted for both his western origins as well as the story he was pursuing. Pearl, who was kidnapped in January, was investigating a story about the `shoe bomber' Richard Reid's links to militant organisations in Pakistan. It took investigators five months to recover his body from a deserted place in the outskirts of Karachi on 17 May.

Murder, it is said, is the ultimate form of censorship. Since Pakistan's involvement in the war in Afghanistan in the early eighties, journalists in Pakistan have remained at serious risk. For Pakistan, the fallout of the war in Afghanistan should be seen in the context of the geopolitics of the region and the role successive governments chose to play. The country's support of the extremist forces in Afghanistan-initially of reactionary leaders such as Gulbadin Hikmatyar and later of the Taliban--has had serious consequences on Pakistan's internal situation.

Pakistan supported the Taliban through an ill-conceived policy of securing a friendly government on its western borders. Its neighbour on the east is India, with which it has gone to war three times over the the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, along the western Himalayas. The Taliban's fanatic commitment to Islam and jihad has given Pakistan's intelligence agency the opportunity to send its own recruits for jihad training in Kashmir. In doing so, these jihadis sent by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), already indoctrinated by the local madressas (religious schools), acquired a skill for violence to add to their religious fervor. Ultimately, they turned their weapons against their own compatriots--and journalists were among those in the firing line. None of the journalists have been killed, but some have suffered threats and attacks.

Pakistan invoked the cause of Islam to legitimise its own involvement in the war in Afghanistan, in the process fostering an environment where the space for democratic principles and values shrank steadily. Journalists have not been the only victims. Women and minorities face the brunt of discriminatory laws now exploited to settle personal scores. Discriminatory laws also contribute to growing intolerance, with more and more groups taking on the role of moral guardians of society. The war has also made the procurement of weapons as simple as shopping for groceries.

Today, a visit to any major newspaper office gives one a sense of the fear that journalists in Pakistan work under. The once `open door' policy has been replaced by an intimidating system of security checks at various points, carried out by armed guards. This makes newspaper offices inaccessible to most people and hinders the role they should play as the voice of the citizens. However, bunkered in and barricaded, journalists have continued to write courageously against the forces of extremism. The office of Dawn, the most influential English-language newspaper, has been the target of terrorist attacks and bombs. In November 2000, a woman suicide bomber apparently sent by a religious group angry over what they perceived as `obscene' advertisements published by the newspaper attacked the Karachi office of The Nation.

Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws have also been used to persecute journalists. Introduced in the 1980s by a military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, the law was further amended to make the death sentence mandatory for anyone convicted of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. However, as with other Islamic laws, the blasphemy law has been liable to misuse, and to whip up popular emotions. The 2001 annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan includes the case of The Frontier Post, a respected newspaper published from Peshawar. …