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As Threats Increase, Pakistani Journalists Self-Censor

Pakistani journalists rally to protest the attacks on media workers.
Pakistani journalists rally to protest the attacks on media workers.
Pakistani journalist Dilawar Jan's head brims with exciting story ideas.

Several times he thought he had a great scoop from behind the scenes of the government's talks with the Taliban. He’s also thought about several exposes on government corruption, or struggles among the country's myriad militant groups.

But he mostly covers the dull press conferences of the many trade associations and political parties in the northwestern city of Peshawar, or ends up filing a story about civic issues for his English language daily, "The News." Such topics are numerous and seemingly never resolved in the teeming city of five million.

Peshawar, the crossroads of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Jan has spent most of his eight-year reporting career, is an ideal place for a war correspondent. His extensive contacts and good story-telling skills have helped him develop the proverbial "nose" for news. However, he faces a common dilemma among Pakistani journalists: self-censorship.

"Over the past several weeks, I have been planning to file a story on the barricaded military garrison, called a cantonment, in the heart of Peshawar, which has turned into a no-go area for civilians," he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara. "But an invisible fear grips me each time I sit down to write something about it."

Pakistan’s mushrooming electronic and print media have been hailed in recent years for being free. But violence against journalists and threats to their security from the "invisible hands" -- a euphemism for the country’s intelligence agencies and multiple Islamist and separatist militant outfits -- often force journalists to self-censor while reporting on security and religious issues informally declared "sensitive" by the military and militants.

"Journalism is like a two-edged sword. We’ve to play safe because we’ve seen the fate of several of our colleagues who were first threatened and then beaten, kidnapped, and killed," Jan said. In April 2009, he was detained and investigated for several hours by intelligence agents because of a report about a military operation in the restive Swat Valley near Peshawar.

New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists considers Pakistan one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. The organization recently petitioned the country's prime minister to draw his government’s attention to the rising threats against journalists.

Omar Cheema, an investigative journalist, says self-censorship is becoming more prevalent because journalists not only fear for their own lives, but also for the lives of their family members.

"Journalists reporting from the [northwestern] tribal areas, the [restive southwestern province of] Balochistan and the [southern seaport city] of Karachi are under direct threat from the militant groups," he told Gandhara, "while those based in [the capital] Islamabad or other central cities fear the intelligence agencies."

In September 2010, Cheema, a correspondent for "The News," was kidnapped, beaten, and humiliated for his investigative reports. "It is unfortunate that media personnel can’t freely express what they have and what is needed to be told to the public," he said.

Global rights watchdog Amnesty International recently said that 34 Pakistani journalists may have been killed as a direct consequence of their work since 2008. In most cases, fingers were pointed at militant groups and the country’s intelligence agencies. In some instances the militants claimed responsibility, while other murders were quickly forgotten.

Author Zahid Hussain said Pakistani journalists are working under the threat of crossing an invisible "red line," a euphemism for tabooed issues. "The nature of [threats] depends on the nature of your report, and where someone crosses the red line."

He said that journalists in Pakistan are under tremendous pressure from belligerent actors on many sides. "During the past 10 years, the phenomenon of non-state actors has immensely spread in the country and even major media companies are now observing self-constraints," he said.

Hussain noted that after two attacks in December and January, one of Pakistan's largest media companies, Express, began self-censoring. The company's English language newspaper, "Express Tribune," stopped carrying stories about the Taliban. "The group’s TV channel [Express News] called the Taliban spokesman during a live broadcast to sort out the matter and ensure the safety of their employees," he added.

While Hussain stressed the need for unity among media organizations to ensure the safety of their community, Jan is pessimistic.

"The security situation is worsening day by day in and around Peshawar, and I don’t see any hope we will be able to observe our freedom any time soon," he said.