Pakistani Journalists Defy Threats From All Sides


“On the one hand, there are state institutions, and on the other hand, there are militant groups, and both groups have the potential to target whoever they want, whenever they want.”

The opening comments of a Pakistani journalist reporting from the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region bordering Afghanistan, illustrated the grim reality for Pakistani journalists: there is no safety. Anyone who does not like what you have to say – whether government, military, or militant – can kill you or have you killed with impunity. 

In an intimate, informal setting, the group of nine Pakistani journalists – seven men and two women - spoke at the Journalism School on February 3 in a discussion moderated by Journalism School Dean, Steve Coll, and Dart Center Director, Bruce Shapiro. Since many of the journalists have faced threats against their lives, they requested anonymity during the talk. Based on the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2012 (CPJ) data, Pakistan is the world’s third deadliest country for reporters. It ranks tenth in CPJ’s Impunity Index, behind countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Mexico, and Russia that are notorious for silencing journalists. 

The journalists represented a diverse group of television and print journalists based out of state capitals and local regions. However, they all shared similar stories of being personally threatened or shutdown when their content did not toe the government or militant line. A journalist from Swat Valley –  a region overtaken by the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, and then driven out by the Pakistani military – spoke of a fatwa issued against his life by the group’s leader, Maulana Fazlullah. The TTP is the biggest militant group in the country with a strong media wing to get their message out. Unlike the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Pakistan’s second largest militant, Islamist group, the TTP is keen to get their message out via statements and video footage. 

A newspaper journalist pointed out that religious militant groups in areas away from the big cities are not the only ones who pose a threat to journalists. He elaborated on the challenges of reporting in Karachi where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a secular, ethnically-based political party, operates primarily in Karachi in a fashion reminiscent of a gang or mafia. The journalist suggested that MQM is the only political party with it’s own militia and intelligence wing, and that they have the personal data, including home address, of every person working in news organizations. Editors have dropped his stories about the MQM for fear of personal safety. 

An investigative journalist who has reported from throughout the country highlighted the fragmentation within the journalist community in Pakistan. Journalists who are reporting from state capitals and have not faced threats often show little concern about the danger that their colleagues reporting from local areas face. There has also been limited unified action from journalists to pressure the government into ending the impunity against journalists. Moreover, both militants and state authorities have been known to masquerade as journalists to collect information, which has further divided the community. 

A television journalist with the country’s leading network, told the tragic story of his colleague, Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was found murdered with signs of torture in 2011. Many believe that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is responsible for Shahzad’s death, but no charges were ever filed, and some fellow journalists even accused Shahzad of being a spy. 

While Pakistani journalists operate under great duress, there are more print, radio, and television outlets than the country has ever seen, reporting in English, Urdu, and regional dialects. The discussion ended with each of the journalists sharing a moment of which they were particularly proud. They recounted stories of hard-hitting television interviews against the orders of superiors which resulted in the news show  being shutdown; refusal to flee the country after an investigative program led to an attack on the journalist’s house; and helping the rescue of hostage Chinese engineers by finding out that they were still alive. Amid the despair and danger that Pakistan’s journalists face, there are countless stories of resilience, mission, and holding truth to power.