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People attend the funeral of Pakistani journalist Imran Sheikh, who was killed in Quetta in 2013. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

In Pakistan, a country where journalists are often the targets of threats and deadly attacks and have little protection from authorities, many reporters are left to fend for themselves.

Now, Pakistani journalists are banding together and establishing so-called "safety hubs" where reporters can formally document cases of intimidation and physical abuse. The hubs, located in press clubs in all four provincial capitals, will then take up the cases with authorities.

The initiative is part of an effort to highlight attacks on the media in a bid to spur authorities to protect Pakistan's estimated 18,000 journalists, many of whom face threats and violence from militant groups, criminal gangs, and even the country's own military and intelligence agencies.

Gohar Ali, the head of the safety hub project in the volatile northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and adjoining lawless tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, says they have reported more than a dozen cases of threats since the project was rolled out in January.

'Fear More Trouble'

A large banner is plastered on the Peshawar Press Club, a two-story brick building opposite the railway station in the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The sign urges journalists facing threats and violence to come forward.

But Ali says many journalists are still afraid to report threats and violence, fearing a backlash from militants, criminals, and intelligence agents in the region.

"The major problem is that many journalists do not mention the threat because they fear more trouble," Ali said. "This is especially the case with journalists from the tribal areas who are facing many threats."

Ali says there have been many cases where journalists have shared their concerns, but have refrained from formally documenting their complaints.

Dilawar Wazir, a BBC reporter in Peshawar, moved with his family from the Waziristan region in the tribal areas due to persistent threats.

A Pakistani journalist holds a poster with a photo of a news cameraman killed in a suicide bombing in August 2016.
A Pakistani journalist holds a poster with a photo of a news cameraman killed in a suicide bombing in August 2016.

The region, many parts of which are off-limits to reporters, is a hotbed for militant groups and the scene of sporadic military operations.

"The majority of journalists have moved with their families from Waziristan because of threats and fear," says Wazir. "The homes of many journalists have been attacked in the past. They were physically attacked or their family members were threatened."

Apart from recording cases, the safety hubs also offer legal advice for journalists facing prosecution for their reporting and even provide financial assistance to the families of reporters who have been killed in the line of duty.

The project is managed by International Media Support, a development organization that works with local media in conflict areas.

The project comes a year after journalists formed a group called Editors For Safety, vowing to report on and highlight attacks on the press in an attempt to spur the authorities and their own employers into action.

Culture Of Impunity

Pakistan has long been among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with 102 reporters and media workers having lost their lives since 2005, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The organization adds that, since 2010, 73 journalists and media workers in Pakistan have been killed: almost one journalist killed every month.

Most of those killed were local journalists reporting on war, politics, corruption, and human rights.

In a 2016 report on Pakistan, which ranks 147th out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, the IFJ said that an "atmosphere of lawlessness" in the country, aided by "widespread impunity," has "not only contributed to more attacks on journalists but also forced the journalists to self-censor."

"In many of the cases, there were reports suspecting Pakistan's intelligence services' involvement but the government has failed to investigate these cases and punish the murderers. With only three verdicts and one case in the court in more than 100 killings since 2005, impunity in Pakistan is at its worst."

In August, DawnNews cameraman Mahmood Khan and Aaj TV cameraman Shehzad Ahmed died at Quetta Civil Hospital when a bomb killed at least 70 people -- many of them lawyers -- among a crowd that was grieving the assassination of the head of Balochistan's Bar Association.

There have been dozens of high-profile cases of journalists targeted in Pakistan in the past decade, including U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, who was slain after his abduction in the port city of Karachi in 2002; Salem Shahzad, who was found dead in the capital Islamabad in 2011 after reporting on the infiltration of militant groups in the army; and Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan's most prominent reporters, who survived an attack on his life in Karachi in 2014.

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Zaland Yousufzai

Ahmad Waqas Goraya

If his recent temporary abduction was aimed at deterring a Pakistani blogger from airing critical views of his country’s powerful security establishment and dangerous Islamist militants, his tormenters were dead wrong.

Ahmad Waqas Goraya, who was abducted for almost three weeks in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore last month, is still determined to fight for what he sees as his contribution to build a better Pakistan.

Goraya, 34, an information technology specialist, says that contrary to widespread accusations that have appeared in some Pakistani media, he did nothing wrong and his social media activism aimed to speak the truth by employing satire.

From his home in the Netherlands, where he has mostly lived during the past 10 years, Goraya is now planning to use his technical knowhow to help social media bloggers guard against hacking and evade detection.

“I am planning to write a detailed manual for my friends to teach them how can they protect themselves online,” he told Radio Mashaal.

Goraya was among the four bloggers who mysteriously disappeared from major Pakistani cities last month. All were associated with social media pages that often criticized Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, politicians, journalists, and in particular religious groups and political parties, some of whom have employed violence to intimidate opponents.

Goraya, the father of a 3-year-old son, says he employed satire on the Facebook page Mochi (Urdu for cobbler) to make fun of populist politicians and television anchors who frequently raised the threat of a military takeover to criticize rival politicians and undermine the country’s fledgling democracy.

He is adamant he never wrote anything that violated Pakistani or Dutch laws or religious and social norms.

“Unlike the traditional media, social media was not censored,” he said. “This was helpful in getting information not otherwise available to the people who needed it most. We were providing people with an alternative perspective.”

His activism was visibly effective. At its peak, Mochi attracted more than 6 million visitors every month. This outperformed many newspapers and television shows in audience numbers. Another page Goraya contributed to was called Shaour (Urdu for awareness). It was dedicated to social issues.

Goraya says he is proud of playing a critical role in shutting down scores of social media pages associated with Islamist militant groups. He says that in recent years he helped form a group of volunteers who looked for pages associated with the Taliban and other violent jihadists. They would gather and share evidence with social media giants Google, Twitter, and Facebook to urge them to shut down these pages because they engaged in hate speech.

But the abduction of the four bloggers in January had a chilling effect on social media activism. Goraya says scores of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds with tens of millions of followers have closed because of the scare their abductions created.

Goraya is still reluctant to talk about who he thinks abducted him and what happened during his captivity. “You know the conditions in Pakistan well,” he said. “The safety of our friends and family is my priority. They are not safe, and they are being harassed in a million ways.”

He says he and his family were terrorized by a campaign of accusations and criticism aimed against him by some elements of the media. Following the bloggers’ abduction, some Pakistani television hosts publicly questioned their patriotism and accused Goraya and others of committing blasphemy by allegedly posting anti-Islam content on their pages.

Blasphemy charges can be deadly in Pakistan, where dozens of individuals have been killed or lynched after being accused of committing sacrilege.

Goraya strongly denies posting anything that violated Pakistani laws or Islamic injunctions.

“We will explore every legal venue against those who accused us of blasphemy,” he said. “This is important so no one can dare level such false accusations in the future.”

Goraya says the accusations forced his family to move twice in one month, and they are still facing social exclusion and strong discrimination because of the false accusations.

“Some of our radical friends and relatives accuse them of being part of what I did, and they are being threatened,” he said. “During my captivity, some of my cousins told my father they would kill me if I survived the abduction.”

Goraya says his suffering has taught him a harsh lesson about the condition of hundreds or perhaps thousands of victims of enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other rights watchdogs accuse Pakistani security forces of being behind a sizeable number of enforced disappearances of suspected separatists, Islamist militants, and political activists.

“Abduction is a small thing in comparison with the torture victims endure from society and the difficulties they face in gaining justice,” he said.

Abdul Hai Kakar is a journalist with Radio Mashaal.

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