Impunity Prevails – A case for policy reforms

On 1st January 2013, a man named Shan Dahar was killed in Larkana by unknown assailants. On 30th January, Bakhtajwar was targeted in Mardan, on 2nd March Ibrar Tanoli was shot dead in Abbotabad, on 22nd Apri Shahzad Iqbal in Mianwali, 28 August Abudur Rasool and Irshad Mastoi in Quetta, on 13th October, Nadeem Haider in Hafizabad and after two days Yaqoob Shahzad were all targeted and killed. On 5th November, Jewan Arain, a reporter with Dharti TV was shot and killed in Gambat, Sindh. Jewan was the 10th journalist to be killed in 2014 and the 100th to be killed in Pakistan since the year 2000.

With the exception of American journalist Daniel Pearl, the perpetuators of all the Pakistani journalists killed since 2000 roam free without consequence. Multiple international media watchdogs have, on a number of occasions, declared Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Assassination is the worst form of censorship and with the snowballing incidents of murder it’s easy to establish the threat level and freedom threshold of Pakistan’s media. The most pertinent indicator of impunity is ‘convictions’ made in journalists’ murders – since the year 2000, out of almost 100 murders, only two cases seen some progress. Barely any of these cases, progress beyond the filing of an FIR (First Information Report); most go uninvestigated letting impunity prevail and perpetrators roam free. This atmosphere of lawlessness not only encourages the attacks on media and its practitioners, but it also safeguards the interests of those who are directly or indirectly involved in targeting the media.

Amin Yousaf, former General Secretary of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, says, “It’s impossible to get legal support in cases of threats and killing of journalists. Investigation and prosecution aside, not even an FIR has been registered in some cases. We have no legal protection at all. We have no resources to pursue the cases of slain journalists in the courts.”

Among the main causes of the lack of a legal follow up is the absence of a formal complainant in most cases. When a journalist is killed, his family automatically becomes more vulnerable to threats and pressures. Even when the slain journalist is a well-known one, like Saleem Shahzad, the families have been known to face intimidation and threats. There have been incidents of family members of journalists’ being targeted – the first one being Hayatullah, a journalist hailing from Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) who was shot dead in 2006. In 2007, his widow was murdered by a targeted bomb blast outside her home. Daily Times reported that in an exclusive interview, she had accused individuals allegedly involved in Hayatullah’s murder. In 2012, a journalist from Balochistan lost two sons in a targeted attack. As with the journalists themselves, the killings of their family members did not lead to conclusive investigations and nobody has been convicted as yet. As this situation prevails, it is perhaps too much to expect the families of the slain journalists to follow through on the legal investigations.

Additionally, the victim’s family is usually unable to nominate an accused, leading to routine FIRs being registered against ‘unknown assailants’. According to Kamran Arif, co-chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the investigative procedures in Pakistan are such that unless a specific suspect

is named, the investigations are usually stalled. Usually, it is not possible for victims’ friends or family to name specific suspects, especially when they themselves are vulnerable and at threat.

The continued targeting of journalists and media workers reflects heavily on the lack of political will to solve this problem. A look at the statics shows that more than 50% of the journalists have been killed during democratic regimes. Freedom of Expression is a constitutionally guaranteed right and a free and fair media, an important instrument of democratic development. The state is responsible for the life of each and every citizen of Pakistan, and in case of groups at risk, the responsibility on the state increases manifold. Looking at the casualty and impunity statistics, it is obvious that the state has failed in its responsibility. The states’ response to attacks on journalists has been extremely ad hoc – If the journalists’ targeting results in public outrage, investigative commission are formed. These commissions do not have the capacity or even the mandate to investigate the crime thoroughly and give convictions. Be it the commission formed after the attack on Hayatullah, Saleem Shahzad’s or Hamid Mir – the reports did not result in identification of the culprits or convictions. Without convictions, the crime prospers and the number of journalist casualties keeps rising.

What is then required is the creation of special legal mechanisms that can streamline the investigative processes that follow a journalists’ murder. Special legislative measures to protect media and journalists, is not a new concept. Various high-risk countries have tried and tested different set of media friendly policies, ranging from appointment of special prosecutors to dedicated investigative units. Among the most recent examples is Mexico. A high risk region for journalists, Mexico, has federalized crimes against journalists and introduced laws to protect journalists/human rights defenders and a Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Free Expression (FEADLE).

Hamid Mir, one of the few journalists who were lucky enough to survive an attempt on his life, feels that Pakistan’s media is dealing with a double edged sword, trying to balance national security and the inherent duty to report fairly. “We (Pakistan’s media) are stuck between a cross fire. On one side, there are religious extremist groups and on the other, there’s State – both of us are trying to dub us as either infidels or traitors but we are neither.” He feels this is an exceptional situation and as such calls for exceptional measures, “Other countries facing similar problems (as Pakistan) were able to bring in special legislation to ensure protection of journalists, likewise, Pakistan Government should bring forth a journalists’ safety bill and should appoint special legislators in Federal, Gilgit Baltistan and all four provinces.”

Civil society groups and journalist associations have long been advocating for such legislation. Pakistan Coalition on Media Safety, PCOMS has recently prepared a set of policy recommendations for the Government, highlighting requisite changes in national and provincial policies to ensure automated and effective responses to journalist murders. It is yet to be seen how the government responds to these, but one hopes that keeping the gravity of the situation in mind, government representatives would at least start a debate around these recommendations.