Murtaza Khan was flipping through TV channels when he saw the tickers: ‘unidentified men open fire at car’, ‘suspects open fire on private news channel vehicle’ and finally, ‘man killed’. It took him a few seconds to realise that he was watching a live update of his brother Wali’s death.
From what Murtaza recalls of that day in January 2011, 29-year-old Wali Babar Khan was on his way home from work. He had been covering an operation against drug traffickers in Karachi’s Pehlwan Goth neighbourhood.
“Wali was a promising reporter. He was always curious about people — especially the downtrodden. He wanted to help get their story out,” said Murtaza while talking to Dawn.
According to Murtaza, the eldest of Wali’s seven siblings, his brother was not interested in pursuing medicine or engineering but wanted to choose his own path. “He told me to not worry about him and that he had a plan. He was interested in the media and eventually landed a job with Geo,” said Murtaza, adding that his brother was excited the first time his story was aired on TV.
In one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, where more than 72 have been killed since 2002, the Wali Babar case is exceptional — the first-ever conviction for the murder of a Pakistani journalist. Before this, there was just Daniel Pearl.
This list of 72 includes 48 journalists who were deliberately targeted and murdered — such as Daily Ausaf’s Hayatullah Khan whose body was found in 2006 by villagers in Mirali, North Waziristan, from where he had been abducted a year earlier. He was shot in the back of the head. Hayatullah had earlier reported that an Al Qaeda commander had been killed by a US missile — contradicting the government’s version. The apex court took suo motu notice of his murder and called an inquiry — but nothing has been done so far.
In Balochistan, there was Irshad Mastoi of the ARY Group. Mastoi, an assignment editor, was killed along with a reporter and accountant when unknown gunmen ambushed the newsroom in 2014. While no one assumed responsibility for the attack, law enforcement agencies claimed that the accused were killed in an encounter.
Except for five cases, including Daily Tawar’s sub-editor Javed Naseer Rind, most of these murders remain unsolved and their perpetrators unpunished, according to ‘State of Pakistani Media in 2018’, a reportlaunched by the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF).
The report focuses on instances of crimes against the media — where journalists were killed, murdered, abducted, assaulted, detained; and threatened by law enforcement agencies, militants, feudal lords, and tribal leaders. TV channels, newspapers, websites and social media were blocked and banned. Media personnel and media organisations were threatened and pressured by state and non-state actors.
It suggests that successive governments have appeared reluctant to probe the murders of journalists.
Eight years ago in May 2011, the body of Saleem Shahzad was found in a canal, around 150km from Islamabad from where he was abducted earlier by unidentified men. His body, it is reported, bore marks of torture.
His death came as a shock to his family.
“We were in denial for a few days. He had come back from a sticky situation in Afghanistan. We were sure he would come home to us,” said his daughter.
Shahzad, who was working for Asia Times Online and Adnkronos International, had just reported on the PNS Mehran attack in Karachi earlier that month.
“The children knew that when Saleem was working, they were not to bug him. He would tell me to put the children to sleep so he could concentrate or he would go into his home office to write,” said Saleem Shahzad’s widow.
“He was passionate about his work. When we met he was still studying and working with the Malaysian consulate. He was a kind man,” she added.
According to the PFF report, the EU Promotion of Human Rights in Pakistan Project’s Ali Dayan Hassan said that Shahzad had told him his life was in danger. While the then PPP government did launch an inquiry into the case and a judicial commission was set up, nothing happened.
“Previous inquiries into the murder of journalists have not been made public and it is not clear if the fate of this inquiry would be any different,” said the report.
It added that the investigation officer of the case said it had been closed for the time being due to lack of evidence.
One decade later, the 2009 shooting of Janullah Hashimzada, Shamshad TV bureau chief and BBC correspondent, remains unsolved. Hashimzada was shot at least six times and killed by masked assailants who intercepted a minibus he was travelling in.
Unlike Pearl, whose case was solved, there was no court case or investigation into Hashimzada’s murder.
According to the PFF’s province-wise breakdown of media violence since 2002 (48 cases), there were at least seven known cases, the majority of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in which journalists were targeted for reporting on the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
The report also looks at several instances where cases were closed because no arrests were made or due to lack of evidence. In more than one case there was no progress because the accused were on the run. In at least three cases the accused were awarded life imprisonment.
According to the report, in a majority of cases action was taken by ‘unidentified persons’ while three deaths were claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army, one by the Junejo tribe and two by an IED.
In total, only five cases have been fully solved; four are still pending before the court, four under investigation and inquiry; and more than 24 were not applicable/no case.
Assault & abduction
In the report, PPF said that it investigated six journalists’ murder cases in 2018. However, they determined that the primary motives of these murders were personal or business animosities and rivalries rather than relating to their work as journalists.
Physical assault continued to be a chronic problem for Pakistani journalists. According to the research, there were at least 22 cases of physical assault in which five journalists were injured while 25 others were beaten and manhandled to stop them from performing their professional duties.
Abducting journalists is another common tactic to stop media practitioners from expressing their views on sensitive issues. PPF documented three cases of abduction and attempted abduction last year — this included Gul Bukhari, writer and columnist of The Nation; Taha Siddiqui, reporter of France 24, New York Times and The Guardian; and Zaibdar Marri, president of the Kohlu Press Club and correspondent of Express News.
Talking about the current state of media and unsolved cases, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists’ president Afzal Butt said that in the last couple of years there has been “unannounced and unofficial” censorship.
Sometimes, he added, it refreshed his memories of different dictatorships the country has been through.
“Before we could shout and fight but now it is impossible to do so. The pay cuts and lay-offs have made our situation worse. For journalists in Pakistan there is no job or life security,” he said.
Along with journalists, press clubs across the country have also been pressured into silence. In Khuzdar, for example, the president of the press club, Mohammad Khan Sasoli, was shot dead in 2010. Four years later, the press club had to be shut down after journalists associated with the club received threats from militants. Similarly in 2017, the Kharan, Chagai, Kalat and other press clubs were also forced to shut down after office-bearers and reporters received threats.
Fast forward to November 2018: “The forcible intrusion by armed personnel into the premises of Karachi Press Club (KPC) was the first in the club’s 60-year existence. KPC termed it an outcome of an ongoing campaign to subdue the press on the part of state and non-state actors,” the PPF report claimed.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Bajaur Press Club was closed on Nov 13, 2018, on the orders of senior local administration officers due to the fear of terrorist attack. Bajaur Press Club’s president said the senior officials informed them of the threat, which led its members to shutter the club for 10 days.
Attacking the residence of a journalist is also used as pressure tactic on journalists, as they become overly cautious for the stake of their families’ safety. One such example of this in 2018 was the attack on the house of Manzoor Bughio, reporter of Channel 24, in Shaheed Benazirabad.