Threats Come at Journalists in Pakistan from All Sides: Despite Gains in Press Freedom, News Organizations and Reporters Engage in Self-Censorship as a Strategy to Protect Themselves and Their Business

By Sarwar, Beena | Nieman Reports, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Threats Come at Journalists in Pakistan from All Sides: Despite Gains in Press Freedom, News Organizations and Reporters Engage in Self-Censorship as a Strategy to Protect Themselves and Their Business


Sarwar, Beena, Nieman Reports


When I think about courage in the context of my country, Pakistan, I am reminded of the Cowardly Lion who went looking for the Wizard of Oz so he could get courage and then realized he actually already had it. It strikes me that reporting honestly and fairly--what the best of journalism should be about--requires courage whenever the surrounding climate is geared towards suppressing the truth, as it is in Pakistan and so many other places today.

Despite press freedom in the United States, for example, many journalists still find it hard to question authority, investigate corruption, or follow up on unpalatable truths. Some who report on government and politics in Washington, D.C. have told me about the self-imposed restraints that creep into their work. Other conversations reveal that many U.S. journalists are so afraid of being labeled "partisan" in their coverage that they do what they can to accommodate "the other side." Those who ask questions that are unpalatable to the administration find themselves being edged out of the circle of those privy to inside information or not called on during press conferences. Recently John Green, executive producer of the weekend edition of ABC's "Good Morning America," was suspended after e-mail messages he wrote that were critical of President Bush and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were leaked.

The more I learn about journalism in the United States, the more I believe that things aren't all that different with journalism in Pakistan. Even today, when the press situation is freer than it's ever been, what is happening in Washington is familiar to journalists in Pakistan who dare to cross swords with the establishment. There are, of course, more constitutional protections and legal safeguards in the United States; much reporting about government abuses (Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib) is done without reprisal, even at a time of heightened concern about prosecutorial attempts to force journalists to reveal sources. Still, even in this reporting, few reporters have probed beyond the obvious transgressions of human rights: The focus remains on the whistleblowers rather than on those who are violating human rights.

In Pakistan, despite recent improvements in press freedom, dangers remain for those whose reporting takes them against the official version of the truth. There are numerous examples of what happens to these transgressors, well documented by watchdog bodies such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Among the tactics of intimidation used are phone taps, surveillance, threatening or interrogating phone calls, or visits from intelligence agency personnel. Since the "war on terror" was declared, in which Pakistan is a key U.S. ally, Pakistan's intelligence agencies have developed close links to their American counterparts, and this war is used as a handy excuse to intimidate the political opposition, as well as journalists who question official policy.

The cozy relationship between Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies means that "terror suspects" can be handed over to American authorities in Pakistan, though this practice is denied by both sides. Journalists fear that this is what happened to Hayatullah Khan, who was kidnapped by "unidentified gunmen" last December. Khan, who worked for the Urdu-language daily, Ausaf, and the European Pressphoto Agency in Pakistan's tribal areas, is still missing. Colleagues believe his disappearance is linked to a report he filed that contradicted official accounts claiming that a senior al-Qaeda commander, Abu Hamza Rabia, died after munitions exploded inside a house. According to a CPJ report, "Khan quoted local tribesmen as saying the house was hit by an air-launched missile. He photographed fragments of the missile for the European Pressphoto Agency." Using his photos, foreign journalists identified it as a Hellfire missile fired from a U.

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Threats Come at Journalists in Pakistan from All Sides: Despite Gains in Press Freedom, News Organizations and Reporters Engage in Self-Censorship as a Strategy to Protect Themselves and Their Business
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