Legal Recourse for Journos’ Protection


Since 2000, over 80 journalists have been killed, hundreds threatened, harassed, intimidated, abducted and attacked. Most of the cases go unregistered, and investigations for those that can even boast the basic FIR, are endlessly and sometimes deliberately delayed and perpetrators roam free. So, what is the reason behind the lack of legal follow-up of journalist murders?

“In case of a journalist’s killing, unless the family comes and charges a particular person, our criminal justice system completely fails. If the family of a victim nominates an accused, there is a chance of some investigations but otherwise none,” says Kamran Arif, a prominent lawyer and co-chair of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Journalist unions express similar helplessness. Amin Yousuf, General Secretary, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) 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.”

Activists working on journalist safety issues have often lamented the lack of a supporting legal framework that allows journalists’ murders to be properly investigated. PFUJ also holds the same position: “We have no legal resources to pursue the cases of slain journalists in courts. What we need is a network of trained lawyers to help us reopen investigations and cope with regular proceedings.”

Saif-ul-Islam Saifi, President, Peshawar Press Club, deals with the reality of threats to journalists on daily basis. His province Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is notorious for journalists being targeted. According to Saifi, “The current legal mechanisms and laws are not effective. The situation will not improve unless special measures are taken. There is a need for legislation for journalists’ safety without the usual complexities of current laws and the draft bill has to be prepared with all stakeholders on board.”

A special law to protect free journalism is not a new concept. Multiple high-risk countries have experimented with different models of designating a special prosecutor for journalist killings. Among the most recent examples is Mexico. A high risk region for journalists, Mexico, has recently federalised crimes against journalists and introduced laws to protect journalists/human rights defenders and a Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Free Expression (FEADLE). But while the Mexican government has been swift in introducing new mechanisms, international watchdogs have termed them ‘inadequate and ineffective’.

Can a similar model work in Pakistan? Kamran Arif of HRCP remains sceptical. “Prosecutors in our scheme of things don’t make a lot of difference; it’s the investigation which has to be almost completely in the hands of police. Part of the problem is a lack of will, but it’s also their lack of ability to investigate. The government has to be serious about it. There might be special investigators for killings but a special prosecutor might not be that effective,” he explains.

The futility of special measures for investigation and prosecution in the current set-up in Pakistan has been highlighted in the past. Hayat Ullah case is one example. “A high-level commission was formed to investigate his killing but its report, even after some years of its completion, has not been made public yet,” says Saifi.

The constitution of a special investigative commission to investigate the more recent Saleem Shahzad’s murder was touted as a giant step forward. However, the report did not go beyond hinting at a possible involvement of intelligence agencies but did not charge anyone in particular. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has often made public promises to the media to investigate journalists’ killings but has yet to deliver. It would appear that rather than a lack of legal procedures to conduct the investigation, it is a lack of political will that is creating a hindrance in a legal follow-up of threats to journalists.

Safdar Dawar, President, Tribal Union of Journalists, expresses concerns about the government’s commitment towards the cause. “In FATA, all governance systems are weak except for state agencies. It’s not in the interest of the government to investigate cases of targeting journalists, for they will prove either the incompetence of security forces or the involvement of agencies themselves,” he says.

Looking at the perspectives of journalist leaders and human rights defenders one can conclude that while having a special law for journalists might be one of the most potent solutions but till we get there, the investigations and prosecution has to be done within the mainstream legal system. As Kamran Arif puts it, “We need to strengthen and make functional what is already there through resource allocation and determination of government to solve these cases.”

*Originally published in The News on Sunday