The culture of impunity in crimes against journalists has plagued Pakistan as the media continue to come under attack in both now traditional forms of violence including physical assault and threats as well as via more sophisticated ways online.
The record for press freedom and the safety of journalists presents a grim picture where the perpetrators of violence against the media continue to evade accountability creating an environment of fear, censorship and consequences for journalists to work within.
Despite strong initial condemnations and the formation of investigative commissions when a journalist comes under attack, the country has seen little progress on the issue of impunity in crimes against the media.
Observing International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on November 2, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) issued a report highlighting the alarming lack of justice in crimes against the media.
During 2021-22, PPF has recorded at least 1 targeted murder, 1 accidental death while on assignment; 2 abductions and kidnappings; 89 instances of physical assault; 24 detentions and arrests; 46 instances of threats being issued; and 34 instances of legal cases registered against media professionals.
Despite the passage of two laws for the protection of journalists — one at the federal level and one at the provincial level in the Sindh province — during 2021, this year has seen little progress in the implementation of these laws that include a specific focus on tackling the issue of impunity.
While safety legislation was a positive step in the right direction, simultaneously, in recent years, the state has been determined to push for further control of the media. This has taken the form of proposed super media regulators, a push to create social media rules and thus further restricted the space for free expression.
Both the deep state, government and political parties have been involved in the attacks on the media and through their lack of action when a journalist is attacked. They also condone and popularize rhetoric that undermines the credibility of journalists or makes them the target of attacks. Despite claims of supporting a free press, political leaders have become the source of unleashing attacks on journalists.
As attacks online become increasingly commonplace, journalists have become the subject of online trolling particularly women journalists on whom the attacks are often of a personal nature. This has led to a lack of safety for journalists both in person and online. As with physical attacks, the source of these forms of online abuse includes those in positions of power.
Pakistan is amongst the nations that does not properly investigate and prosecute crimes committed against journalists. Whether it be provincial authorities or the federal level — the state has appeared uninterested in investigating and bringing to justice the perpetrators of crimes against the media. This is reflected in the high levels of impunity in crimes against the media.
Since 2002, there have been at least 76 confirmed cases of journalists’ killed while on assignment or through targetted murders. There have been convictions in only five cases — Daniel Pearl, Wali Khan Babar, Ayub Khan Khattak, Abdul Razzak Johra and Nisar Ahmed Solangi.
With murder being the most extreme form of attack on a journalist by ending their life, this figure is a good reflection of the impunity that prevails across all attacks on the media.
While the creation of new laws or the issuance of statements of solidarity are welcome steps, they are empty promises when there is no progress in the overall situation regarding impunity.
It is the responsibility of the media houses and employers, media bodies, the provincial and federal governments and the state to ensure that this culture is brought to an end so that journalists are able to perform their duties without fear and without consequences.