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A Journalist’s Assassination Rekindles Questions of Press Freedom in Pakistan

There is palpable fear in Pakistani journalism after popular TV anchor Arshad Sharif's killing in Kenya.

Published
World
5 min read
A Journalist’s Assassination Rekindles Questions of Press Freedom in Pakistan
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Shiraz Hasnat has been a journalist for over 22 years. Back in 2016, he had to leave his lucrative job as a prime-time TV anchor on Dawn TV after attempts at his alleged abduction and when he allegedly found a bullet in his office.

"When the news of the death of Arshad Sharif, an old friend and a former colleague came, my wife told me that she was glad I was no longer an anchor on TV," he says.

There is palpable fear in the Pakistani journalism after one of their most popular TV anchors, Arshad Sharif, was shot dead in Nairobi in Kenya on 23 October, an act which the Kenyan Human Rights Commission has called “well-planned.”

The fear stems from decades of media curbs, censorship, and a lack of trust that the journalists suffer from where many are looked at as biased towards a political party or the all-powerful ‘establishment.’

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'One of the World’s Deadliest Countries for Journalists'

Sharif’s death has rekindled a number of questions about press freedom in Pakistan, a country ranked 157th in the Reporters without Border's press freedom index of 2022, a drop of 12 places since 2021. The report called Pakistan “one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists,” with murders and abductions of journalists.

The report categorically blames Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – an intelligence agency offshoot – to be responsible for media censorship and detention of journalists.

Mazhar Abbas, one of Pakistan's most senior journalists, agrees wth the report's assessment. In an article for Geo News, he describes how reporting in Pakistan is difficult as multiple political parties have used denigrating terms like ‘lifafa’ journalists to describe all those who they believe to be biased and corrupt journalists, funded and encouraged by their political rivals.

While Imran Khan has come out in favour of press freedom and has been using the death of Sharif as a political tool against the army establishment in his political rallies, he had previously used terms like lifafa to describe other journalists and it was during this term as the prime minister when some of them were attacked and abducted.

Abbas, who has spent over 40 years in journalism, tells The Quint that Sharif’s death is the first of its kind where a journalist was killed outside the country. “Now that it is established that he wasn’t killed as a result of mistaken identity but was targeted, the journalist community is concerned and has demanded a thorough investigation,” he adds.

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The senior journalist describes Sharif as someone considered to be close to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). “One can disagree with the content of his shows but he did good homework in all of them.”

Abbas believes that Sharif was threatened with charges of sedition and that is why he probably left Pakistan.

The Journalist Protection Bill, passed during the previous PTI government, is yet to be enforced, Abbas mentions in his article, adding that cases of sedition would not have been filed against journalists had it been implemented.

Abduction and Assassination Attempts

These cases are just a few methods employed to curb criticism in Pakistan where several senior journalists have accused that they have had abduction and assassination attempts.

Shiraz Hasnat, the current finance secretary of the Lahore Press Club, used to host a show on Dawn TV in 2015 called Exposed. “It was a three-days-a-week primetime show which I left due to my security and due to threats," he says.

Hasnat, who left the show in 2016 and took a brief hiatus before returning to an administrative role, believes that the killing of Arshad has had an impact on Pakistani journalism and on aspiring journalists. 

Reminiscence of Zia Era?

Pakistan has suffered such impacts before and has witnessed several instances of media curb since the Independence in 1947. The strongest of these was during the regime of military dictator General Zia Ul Haq in the 1970s and the 1980s, when newspapers were stiffly censored and strictly controlled.

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In 1979, two newspapers in Karachi – the Daily Musawat and the Daily Sadaqat – were banned by Zia government which in December 1980 would issue Martial Law Regulation No. 49, banning any publication deemed to be against the integrity and security of Pakistan.

While journalists regularly face threats in Pakistan, Hasnat believes that the current situation is not as bad as it was during Zia's time. “There are still restrictions but there are far more opportunities for journalists through social media.”

But this puts them under target as well because “in newspapers, we can avoid giving a byline to keep the reporter anonymous, but in digital media, the reporter has to be present and visible,” adds Hasnat.

Absence of Democratic Base

Another journalist who suffered physical and mental harm is the senior investigative reporter with Fact Focus, Ahmad Noorani who now resides in the US after leaving Pakistan in March 2020. He opines that the absence of any sort of democratic base in the country added to the woes of journalists.

Many, he agrees, have had to leave the country to pursue the profession.

“I am also one of them who had to leave Pakistan out of economic reasons as my job prospects got limited and the mental harassment I suffered,” he says.

In 2017, Noorani was allegedly attacked by unidentified assailants where he "was hit with iron rods.”

In Pakistan, there is a clear binary that exists in the minds of people about journalism. If someone writes a critical story against Imran Khan, they are automatically presumed to be pro-Army or pro-establishment.

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“My son, who is in school, asked me if I ever did yellow journalism. It shows how common the term has become. The credibility of journalism is at stake as basic ethics are not met and both parties are not quoted in stories.”
Shiraz Hasnat

'No Country With 100% Free Media'

Political analyst and journalist Murtaza Dar argues that while the assassination of Sharif is condemnable and will perpetuate fear for journalists in Pakistan, “no country in the world has media which is 100% free."

"Freedom of the press is a customised freedom and there are spaces where the media is allowed to move. Journalists need to learn the way to walk through those spaces,” he opines.

Despite the tribulations faced by journalists, there is still hope in the industry.

Abbas believes that Pakistani journalists “have a strong resolve and are resilient.”

This was reiterated by Noorani, who is of the view that despite the restrictions over the decades, media has won freedom through its own spirit.

“And while the army has pushed around anyone who was critical of them or the state, journalists have persevered.”
Ahmad Noorani

(Ibrar is a freelance journalist and analyst currently based in the UK. He is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where he studied South Asian Area Studies focusing on democracy, authoritarianism and culture of South Asia and Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitics.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Ahamad Fuwad
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