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Sunday 16 December 2018

Sailab Mehsud, a contributor to RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

Journalists in a northwestern Pakistani city have threatened to protest if authorities fail to withdraw a police case against two of their colleagues for covering a rally.

Members of the press club in Dera Ismail Khan, a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, say they have asked authorities to retract a police report identifying Sailab Mehsud, a contributor to RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, and local TV correspondent Zafar Wazir as having participated in a protest on December 8.

The police report, filed on the same day, alleged that they and nearly 20 others were chanting slogans against Pakistani state institutions and “inciting hatred and violence.”

Sailab and Wazir deny any wrongdoing. They say they were only covering the protest and were not participating in the event, organized by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which emerged this year in Pakistan’s western tribal Pashtun regions along Afghanistan’s border. Since February, the PTM has campaigned for security and rights for Pashtuns, Pakistan largest ethnic minority, whose homeland was the main theater for Islamabad's war on terrorism during the past 15 years.

Shakir Mehsud, a journalist in Dera Ismail Khan, said covering protests is not a crime.

“In our [press club] meeting today, we concluded that the state is wrong to pressure us to prevent us covering the PTM protests,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are journalists. We are neutral, and we are not part of a political party or an apolitical movement.”

Shakir said they have contacted colleagues across Pakistan to launch countrywide protests if authorities fail to retract the police report against Sailab and Wazir in the next three days. "The PTM has raised the issues related to our homeland, and we cannot ignore them," he said.

Hamza Mehsud, another journalist, said he witnessed the December 8 PTM protest and can testify that Sailab and Wazir were not part of the protest. “I was there and can tell you that these two were only involved in reporting,” he told Radio Mashaal.

“The government needs to take this FIR back,” he said, referring to the police’s First Information Report. Under Pakistani law, a FIR marks the formal opening of a criminal investigation. “This FIR is based on lies.”

But Waheed, a spokesman for the police in Dera Ismail Khan, told the BBC Urdu service that Sailab and Zafar were part of the PTM protest. He claimed that both had engaged in chanting slogans against the security forces.

Sailab, however, rejected the accusations. He said he only reported on the December 8 protest for Radio Mashaal.

"If they can prove that I and Zafar Wazir have raised any of the slogans that they accused us of raising, then they should hang us," he told the BBC Urdu Service. "We do not recognize this police report [as legitimate], which is why we will not apply for bail."

Pakistan has launched an apparent crackdown on the media coverage of the PTM. Last week, authorities ordered Internet service providers to block the website of Voice Of America's Urdu service. The websites of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal and VOA's Deewa Radio, Pashto-language services for Pakistan, have been sporadically blocked since October.

Pakistani media has extended little coverage to the PTM. In often noisy street protests and online campaigns, the PTM has blamed the military for human rights abuses in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other Pashtun regions where the military conducted its anti-terror sweeps. The PTM also blames the military for supporting and protecting some militant groups.

The military denies these accusations. Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military spokesman, recently told journalists that more than 200,000 Pakistani soldiers are based in FATA to "secure and control the militant violence.”

Wazir, the journalist blamed for participating in the PTM protest, said suppressing the coverage of Pakistanis demanding rights is not helping the country.

"If we have a truly independent media, everyone in the country will eventually be able to avail of their rights," he said.

FILE: A Pakistani journalist signs a banner during a protest to mark World Press Freedom day.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- For more than 35 years, Abdul Ghaffar Baig chased some of the most dangerous stories as a news photographer in northwestern Pakistan.

He was often one of the first to arrive on the scene of suicide bombings and shootings in the teeming city of Peshawar, capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Baig, 52, has faced every conceivable danger in his line of duty, and yet this year brought a new type of insecurity: unemployment.

In October, he lost his job at the Daily Express newspaper, where he had worked for the past 17 years. His firing is part of mass layoffs across Pakistan’s media industry.

“After working for 17 years, I was fired on short notice [effective immediately],” he told Radio Mashaal as he flipped through a stack of newspapers and magazines containing some of his best work. “I was not even allowed to go into my office. I was just asked to hand over my equipment before being sent away.”

Abdul Ghaffar Baig
Abdul Ghaffar Baig

Baig is among the hundreds of Pakistani reporters, photographers, editors, television presenters, and other media workers who have lost their jobs since the beginning of the year. As the media industry faces increased censorship and financial uncertainty some of its most valuable workers have lost their livelihoods.

Now journalists across the country are up in arms. Saiful Islami Saifi, head of the Khyber Union of Journalists in Peshawar, says one of the major reasons for the media’s financial woes is that the government was late in paying its dues to most newspapers and television stations. The various branches of the central and provincial governments in Pakistan are the largest providers of aid revenues to the media because of its control over official advertisements. This leverage has also traditionally granted authorities tremendous influence over the competitive industry.

“Since assuming power [in August], the current government has stopped granting government advertisements while authorities have not paid dues since the beginning of last year,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Our protest movement, however, has prompted the government to begin writing cheques for its past dues, but it has not translated into our colleagues being called back to work.”

Since the turn of the century, the media industry has mushroomed in Pakistan. With hundreds of new magazines, newspapers, and television stations, media outlets have multiplied, but many journalists feel their freedoms have shrunk because the new media moguls are eager to compromise journalism for financial gain.

Last month, Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry blamed the country’s previous government for the media’s financial troubles.

“We are ending the government’s control on media advertisements. Now, advertisements will be granted to media groups [companies] on merit,” he said in a video statement on November 12. “We are not in favor of using the advertisement [revenues] as a political tool, which affected the media business [adversely]. I hope this relief will immediately stop retrenchments in major media houses.”

But nearly a month later, such pronouncements ring hollow for the journalists who have lost their livelihood. “I sold my wife’s jewelry to provide food for my family,” Baig says as he points toward a crumbling roof in his small house, which badly needs repairs.

He is bracing to make more painful adjustments as he expects his elder daughter to drop out of university. His younger daughter already must walk a long distance to her college, as her father can no longer afford to pay for her commute by taxi.

Every day Baig and hundreds of other journalists visit courthouses and protest camps in the hopes of finding some solution or justice.

Visits to newspapers and television stations in search of jobs frequently end in disappointment.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this report based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Zaland Yousafzai’s reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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