Pakistani Journalists: Standing Tall
Beena Sarwar

Journalists in Pakistan walk a tightrope between the military and the militants, risking their lives as never before to get the truth into the public domain. They have always had to tiptoe around directly challenging the concepts upheld by the security establishment. But as a Pakistani writer and filmmaker writes, the media in Pakistan is still standing.


ay a prayer for Saleem Shahid, my friend, then let’s talk about cricket, who’s going to be the next captain, let’s gossip”, urged senior journalist Nusrat Javeed in the television talk show Bolta Pakistan that he co-hosts with the younger Mushtaq Minhas. As Minhas tried to bring up the issue of the investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad who had just been found murdered, Javeed interrupted him:
Merey bhai (my brother), focus on getting good ratings. Television is all about ratings. This is the message we need to understand. Get your ratings up, talk about the corruption of politicians, talk about drones, go ahead and bash America, spread Imran Khan’s thoughts from house to house, or even better, leave journalism altogether. You must learn your lesson, identify the safe areas and play there…I myself like cooking. I think maybe I should start a TV show: ‘Nusrat can cook’ – you get to travel also…

Savage sarcasm, satire, and black humour are means to deal with pressures that journalists in Pakistan face, particularly since the “war on terror” that has pushed them onto a tightrope, caught between the military and the militants.

Dealing with the Devil
As in most of south Asia, Pakistan has a bureaucratic culture where the right to information or freedom of information are fledgling concepts and even the most innocuous government file is often stamped “top secret”. Journalists who rely on the ubiquitous “reliable source” to obtain the story sometimes end up making a deal with the devil. A source provides exclusive information that will make the front page; in return, you may have to publish a story against someone, or use inaccurate or slanted information. In countries where reporters obtain information legitimately for example, Sweden, where journalists routinely peruse government correspondence and trawl through official registers without being beholden to anyone journalists

Beena Sarwar ( is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and editor of Aman ki Asha for the Jang Group, Pakistan.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW

can reject such requests or look for verification from other sources. But when the information is obtained clandestinely, or “leaked” by dubious sources, this may not be possible. Of course Pakistan is not the only country where journalists cultivate secret sources. Remember the New York Times (nyt) report alleging that Iraq was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction? It paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq, with disastrous consequences not just for that country but the world. That lie for which the NYT subsequently and belatedly apologised, led to a situation that contributed to the current state of affairs in Pakistan, including the increasing risks journalists face. The risks to reporters are multiplied by the high stakes of the post-9/11 world with its murky underworld of intelligence gathering, particularly in Pakistan where the intelligence agencies also have a selfstyled agenda to ensure compliance with the “ideology” of Pakistan. According to one interpretation of this ideology, India is the enemy, Pakistan is the torchbearer of Islam, and (since the Afghan war of the 1980s that Pakistan fought as a front line state for the United States against the Soviets) jihad or “holy war” is the way to enforce these concepts. Pakistani journalists have always had to tiptoe around directly challenging the concepts upheld by the security establishment, particularly around conflict situations and the wars fought with India (portrayed in Pakistan as Pakistani victories following Indian aggression). The other sacred cow has always been Islam, the dominant religion in Pakistan, an emotive issue that governments have often tried to exploit for political gains. When Zulfikar Bhutto found his government weakening, he tried to play the religious card. He declared Friday the weekly holiday, got the Ahmedis categorised as non-Muslims, and banned gambling and alcohol. But his handpicked Chief of Army Staff, general Zia-ul-Haq trumped Bhutto’s Islam card with his own more extreme version. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a godsend to Zia. His hanging of Bhutto, imprisonment, torture and flogging of political opponents (including journalists), and crackdown on

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vol xlvi no 29


www. this projihadi. Since 9/11. Presenting a range of approaches. the same month that investigative journalist Hayatullah Khan’s body (shot to death. Nearly 50 journalists have been killed over the past decade. security agencies arrested Geo TV reporter Mukesh Kumar Ropeta and cameraman Sanjay Kumar near the US airbase at Jacobabad in Sindh where they had rushed upon hearing a blast (later explained away as a sonic boom). 2011 vol xlvi no 29 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . He had been abducted six months earlier after he reported that the death of Abu Hamza Rabia. The readers draw on the EPW ’s archive of published articles. its pace over time. It will be useful to students and scholars of economics and management. He resorted to heavy censorship. views and conclusions. this collection comprises papers published in the Economic and Political Weekly between the late 1990s and 2008 that are marked by an empirical awareness necessary for an understanding of a growth history. Nagaraj • Montek Ahluwalia • Shashank Bhide • Amit Bhaduri • Pranab Bardhan Readings on the Economy. indoctrinated “mujahideen” left over from the Afghan war and who now turned their guns on Pakistan. the trained. and the Economic and Political Weekly. In March 2006. about 12 in the last 18 months alone. like fore example. But the journalists killed in conflict-ridden Balochistan barely merit small reports in the mainstream Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd 24 july 16. The articles reflect a certain groundedness in their approach in that they privilege content/context over methodology. Journalists vigorously resisted the dictator. anti-India policy has intersected disastrously with policies emanating from the “war on terror”. were all overlooked as he allowed Pakistan to be used as the front line state in the Afghan war. like Saleem Shahzad. its relationship to changes in the policy regime and the role of the external sector. Ropeta and Kumar were kept incommunicado for three months. there were more subtle ways of dissent. This volume is an important addition to the literature on post-liberalisation economic growth in India. was due to a US missile. Polity and Society This is the first book in a new series jointly published by EPW and Orient Blackswan. many of them victims of target killing. They were finally produced before a court in June. ‘Strategic Assets’ After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. an alleged Al Qaida commander. newspapers forcibly shut down). Besides protest demonstrations. or having sympathies Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact: info@orientblackswan. a restrictive media policy and indoctrination through the media and education systems in order to build consensus for the new security paradigm centred on jihad and “strategic depth”. The series is being published as part of a University Grants Commission project to promote teaching and research in the social sciences in India. using pseudonyms (that had to be continuously changed as the “agencies” cottoned on to identities).COMMENTARY the media (censorship. The series is meant to introduce university students and research scholars to important research that has been published in EPW in specific areas. the Baloch journalist Malik Siraj Akbar poignantly documents (“Death Is One Pakistani Reporter’s NE W Economic Reforms and Growth in India Essays from Economic and Political Weekly Edited by PulaPre Balakrishnan This volume investigates the nature of economic growth in India. Incidents related to Pakistan’s involvement in the “war on terror” have upped the ante for journalists. The security establishment let them target people they considered a threat to their version of Islam since the mujahideen were useful in bleeding India over Kashmir.orientblackswan. like publishing blank spaces to alert readers that material had been censored. and the art of criticising without being too obvious about it. tortured and accused of being spies for India – an accusation apparently triggered by the fact that both are Hindu (and by implication. and uses data to evaluate the policies that have implicitly underpinned the changes. The project (2010-12) is being jointly executed by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Here are a couple of examples about journalists caught at the wrong end of this paranoia. associated with. Mumbai. India). the fledging democracy that began to emerge following Zia’s death in 1988 found itself up against not just a security establishment used to openly forming and implementing policy. but also its “strategic assets”. his wrists bound with government issued handcuffs) was found in North Waziristan. His photographs of pieces of a US-made drone in the wreckage of the house destroyed by the blast gave the lie to the government’s claims that the explosion was caused by inflammables in the house itself. Contributors include Deepak Nayyar • Rakesh Mohan • Atul Kohli • Arvind Panagariya • Kunal Sen • Neeraj Hatekar • Jessica Seddon Wallack • Pulapre Balakrishnan • Ravindra Dholakia • Ramesh Chand • R. caught between the government secret services and insurgent groups.

In April 1973. official pressure on media outlets has led to a complete blackout of the news concerning their deaths. This was in addition to the threats from the secret agencies. sent live bullets and warnings to journalists. the Goa-born. I have lost six colleagues in the conflict. the Zia Years: In 1977. Journalist friends in India sometimes express wonder at the courage of their Pakistani colleagues. Journalists’ arrests were part of the crackdown on all progressive forces in the early 1950s. Recruited by The Sunday Times.COMMENTARY Constant Companion”. Akbar writes. iwatchnews. He arrived in Britain on 12 June 1971. General Yahya Khan: The State-controlled Pakistan Television. The authorities have not investigated or punished those responsible for these killings. M A Shakoor. the National Assembly approved the new Constitution that had been accepted by most political parties. and the following day his three-page story appeared in The Sunday Times. the Urdu daily Jang. Along with a few newspapers and the governmentcontrolled Radio Pakistan. The ugliness cultivated and stifled during the Zia years came spewing out. But then it is necessary to remind ourselves that Pakistan is reaping now what the general sowed during those dark days. and kidnapped and beat journalists. and changed the course of his life”. his reports on the happenings in East Bengal “profoundly influenced opinion in the outside world. as Pakistan tried to align with the US – where the McCarthy era was then in full swing. Pakistanis on the other hand. july 16. including various controversial “Islamic” laws. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed her government in 1990 and headed a caretaker government that oversaw fresh general This intensification of conflict that the journalists find themselves in makes the bad old days of the Zia era look good. has remained very much “his master’s voice”. The media at the time. journalists began facing an increase in “privatised” violence by non-state actors. The phases of Pakistan’s political and media history identified below provide an overview that illustrates this. They barged into homes and offices of journalists (even the much respected editor of the daily Dawn was not spared). who took oath as president and first civilian Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan. This decade was also marked by veritable musical chairs of governments being elected and ousted. the English daily Dawn and Radio Pakistan. later hanging him. PTV reported only what the government allowed. Family members and professional colleagues back home in Pakistan attribute the reporters’ targeted murders to state secret services and death squads. At least four journalists were killed in 1990 alone. toed a pro-establishment. working on stories. During the past nine months. (4) 1977-88 – Army Rule. have historically had an adversarial relationship with the State. The privatisation of violence mentioned above manifested itself in attacks on journalists by men with affiliations to various religious and ethnic parties. nation building. The first general elections in this period. 3 June 2011). Journalists suspected of communist sympathies were fired and imprisoned (including my uncle Mohammad Akhtar and his colleagues. But it also earned him the bitter hatred of Pakistan’s military regime. the government-controlled news agency. This censorship was particularly evident when it came to the growing unrest in what was then East Pakistan. it was as if the lid had been lifted off a pot on the boil. Tufail Ahmad Khan and Mihaj Barna). Indians have had a chance to build a consensus with the State and buy into the State’s security paradigm. journalists being imprisoned and flogged and tortured. leading to an often healthy scepticism. I spent time with all these journalists. some wish that the Indian media would stand up to. thrice through powers that Zia had introduced allowing the president to dissolve the assemblies and send the government packing on various grounds. The violence of the 1990s is well documented. Karachi-educated journalist who had helped found the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP). 2011 vol xlvi no 29 25 . An exception was Anthony Mascarenhas. thugs strengthened during the military dictatorship. when the Pakistan army surrendered to the Indian army. It was quoted all over the world and won him awards from IPC and What the Papers Say. Prime Minister Bhutto announced general elections one year before his term ended. Index On Censorship 7/1991). the corporate sector at home. army chief general Yahya Khan resigned and handed over the government to Zulfikar Ali the West Pakistan media was still predicting victory. four narrowly escaped death. with the critical areas of defence. Ahmad Hasan. (1) 1947-58 – The Formative Years – Governor Rule: A Constitution was adopted. The promised elections “within 90 days” were never held. It was during these years that many of the developments mentioned above took place – censorship. These allegations fed into a wider discontent that Bhutto’s Chief of Army Staff. progovernment line. These years were marked by a sense of consolidation. say. as his obituary in The Times notes. only to be abrogated within a few years. participating in training programmes or developing source networks in the country’s largest province bordering Iran and Afghanistan. and emergence from the trauma of 1971. Before the early elections could be held Zia-ul-Haq imposed Martial Law and imprisoned Bhutto. Worse still. Twenty newspaper offices were attacked (“The Press in Pakistan Is Unwell”. Economic & Political Weekly EPW (3) 1971-77 – the Bhutto Years: On 20 December 1971. He and his family had to leave their home and all their possessions in Karachi. London in 1970. (5) 1988-99 – Democracy ‘Musical Chairs’: After Zia’s death in a plane crash in August 1988. held in November 1988 brought Benazir Bhutto to power – but with her hands tied behind her back. After Zia’s mid-air exit from the scene. Zia appointed himself president and made various changes to the Constitution. The fact is that due to the almost uninterrupted political process in India (barring Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years). general Zia-ul-Haq was able to exploit when he overthrew his erstwhile mentor in 1977. (2) 1958-71 – Army Rule – Field Marshall Ayub Khan. foreign policy and economy off-limits to her government. that began broadcasts in 1964. General elections in 1974 brought Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to power amid allegations of rigging. Eric Rahim. The news censorship and slanting was so extreme that even on 16 December 1971. and three others were kidnapped. and for a time he had reason to fear for his life.

filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against july 16. “Nawaz Sharif vs the Press”. had started an English language newspaper The News. the ratings-driven “big media”. etc) and cell available at Dey & Bose Magazine Agent P. Barely a couple of years later. the linkages built up between the military and the militants over decades may take time to disappear completely. There are other ways to deal with pesky journalists. Frontline.Beldubi. The quid pro quo for the government backing off appeared to be the Jang Group’s shelving of the Geo project at the time. During Nawaz Sharif’s last government. The anti-American rhetoric pushed by certain sections in Pakistan (particularly the religious and right wing political parties and the “agencies”) is also evident in the mainstream electronic media and their talk shows. Tensions between the media and the government had been building up since the previous summer. When he imposed Emergency rule in November 2007. 2011 journalists and media organisations for “defaming” Pakistan’s armed forces and its top spy agency. Matters between the government and the Jang Group came to a head in January 1999 when the Jang editor-in-chief Mir Shakilur Rehman at a press conference played audio tapes supporting his allegations that the government had been pressurising him to “sack and replace 16 journalists”. His relationship with the news channels soured during their coverage of the mass agitations against his dismissal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. blogs. As Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists commented. Although officially Pakistan has rejected the “jihadi” policy. honest discussion and dialogue. Twitter. dubbed by some wags as Pakistan’s “jihadi media”. While this may not change anytime soon. more mature public discourse. The battle continued until the government assured the Jang Group unconditional access to its newsprint stores and bank accounts (details in my article. (6) 1999-2008 – Army Rule.000-odd employees whose pay cheques were held up. are more interested in news and talk shows that are sensationalist and fan conflict rather than promoting open. It has a democratically elected government that is staying away from the vengeful policies of the past. Dadpur Howrah 711 322. and more staid Dawn.COMMENTARY elections three months later. affecting the 4. in which journalists walk a tightrope between the military and the militants. 27 February-12 March 1999). On 24 June. an offshore south Asian satellite channel backed by the Jang Group. of course. and “refrain from criticising the first family”. continues to undermine freedom of information and freedom of the media. On the contrary. Pakistan’s largest circulated daily with several editions. The journalists who expose those leftover links do so at risk to their lives. There is an increased highlighting and exposure of abuse. Another caretaker government supervised new general elections. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League was voted to power but dismissed in 1993. Ironically. risking their lives as never before to get various versions of the truth into the public domain. The government was also irked by the planned launch of Geo. But a Step in the Right Direction): And so we come to the current phase. coinciding with Nawaz Sharif’s announcement of the controversial Constitutional Amendment 15 (the Shariat Bill). “This suit is part of a wide range of efforts including threats. in which no major political leaders participated. Newsprint supply to Jang. “The government feels that the Jang Group is a monster in the making. social media (Facebook. including Geo. abductions. and killings (of journalists) that we have seen being dealt out at an increasingly frequent rate”. (7) 2008 – Democracy Again (Imperfect. in recent months the rise in public awareness about political issues and the right to information has led to unprecedentedly open challenges to Pakistan’s traditional security paradigm and calls for accountability of the military. The government filed a sedition case against Mir Shakilur Rehman. the intelligence agencies and the militants they once trained and equipped are two sides of the same coin. Musharraf banned several channels. Imran Aslam. He is arguing that the armed forces and the intelligence agencies are responsible for defending the geographical and ideological boundaries of Pakistan and that elements from the print and electronic media are “out to destabilise and de-nuclearise Pakistan”. on the Internet – with email. The startling revelations led to an unprecedented battle between the govern ment and the press. It is also clear that having an independent media does not always mean better. the Musharraf Years: Chief of Army Staff general Pervez Musharraf ousted the Nawaz Sharif government in a coup and held controlled elections in 2002. former Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan (during the Musharraf era) Sardar Muhammad Ghazi. which returned Benazir Bhutto to power. then senior editor The News. stopped abruptly. On the plus side. Daniel Pearl. The group’s bank accounts were frozen. President Farooq Leghari (a PPP stalwart) dismissed the government and three months later Nawaz Sharif was elected back to power. beatings. documented and made public by “citizen journalists” or the “para-media” as the Bangladeshi journalist Afsan Chowdhry termed the underground media of Bangladesh in the 1990s. Geo was the last to be allowed back on air several months later. The ownership of the Urdu language Jang. There were by now several newspapers in various languages. told me at the time.O. Except that the current “para-media” is not underground. Pakistan is on the right track. West Bengal Ph: 22198749 vol xlvi no 29 EPW Economic & Political Weekly 26 . granted licences to private television stations. However. anymore but very much in the open. The Chief Executive of Pakistan as Musharraf styled himself. competing with the established. “support us in policy matters”. For many. with its move into the electronic media challenging the official monopoly on truth”. which had already been held back illegally by the government. tensions between the media and the government hit a new high. the first journalist to be killed for venturing into that murky terrain was not a Pakistani but an American. as elsewhere in the world. the “deep state” that columnist Kamran Shafi keeps reminding us of.

Andhra Pradesh received an unprecedented average rainfall of 1. The state government was forced to review and revise its procurement operations.96 23. let us understand the nature of paddy production and the market.09 22. The moot question is why does this crisis happen when we have built a safeguard called state procurement.71 13.39 24.61 59. the output was even higher. As a result.56 48. Production and Yield of Rice in Andhra Years Area (Lakh ha) Kharif Rabi Production (lakh Tonnes) Kharif Rabi Yield (Quintal per Acre) Kharif Rabi Bumper Harvest In 2010. The superior varieties (such as Sona Masuri. In the final analysis.69 39.73 58.31 36. A record procurement of the rabi crop by state agencies could not mitigate the crisis.91 51. The Andhra Pradesh State Civil Supplies Corporation (APSCSC) does not procure any paddy in Table 1: Area.33 83.8% increase in rabi (under paddy). The increased procurement did not repair the damage completely.13 8. Pakistan is barely three years into the current phase. Government of Andhra Pradesh.49 49.06 28. it will be a first in Pakistan’s history.42 31.26 14. there was a 5% increase of the area under paddy cultivation in the kharif season and a 10.50 29.34 42.08 63. University of Hyderabad. yet the tardy procurement exposed its weaknesses in meeting the challenge. The year 2010-11 was not the first one with a bumper crop.87 35. a deeper malady in the policy in the state that is responsible for the situation. The majority of farmers who sold their crop to millers on an average suffered a loss of around Rs 5. It began with no miller turning up at mandis until end-April to lift the paddy. in fact. which has become an annual phenomenon.01 26. To top this.79 34. Before addressing the larger questions. july 16. All this has led to changes in the public discourse that the big media also picks up. This led to an all time record rabi production of 70 lakh tonnes in 2010-11.94 28. The physiognomy of paddy is that the kharif crop grown during June-November is a long duration crop of six months.89 27. Economic & Political Weekly EPW *Advance Estimates.89 50. causing prices to plunge.93 32.15 26. symbolically burnt paddy on roads in protest.97 31. and hands over power to the next elected government.63 29. The merging of these technologies and tools has led to a virtual (no pun intended) revolution that would once have been considered science fiction. T he bumper harvest of paddy in Andhra Pradesh 2010-11 brought the farmers trouble rather than benefit.24 36.56 25. a majority of whom sold their produce at less than the minimum support price.82 75.26 13. suggesting an upward drift in production.80 58. this has not been good news for the farmers. BPT. 30% in excess over the normal. etc) are produced during kharif and go into top end consumption.41 34. This is because the millers have depressed prices below the minimum support price (MSP).41 7.27 69.15 27.66 8. one can hope that a democratic political culture will eventually prevail over the security state and the militants.89 37. This calls for a serious debate on the efficacy of the government procurement policy and price support strategy. The lopsided policy of the Food Corporation of India in Andhra Pradesh of procuring rice instead of paddy is the root cause of the problem. Vijay Masuri. due to low relative prices of maize and sugar cane in the past two years.78 14.11 63.000-8.07 70.37 82.88 25. While this should welcome from the point of view of food security for the people.04 12.22 13.59 26.COMMENTARY phones (readily accessible documentation tools that allow a lay person to take photos or videos and upload them to the Web).81 31. The direction it now takes will be critical to the situation of the media in coming is with the Department of Economics. All this is also affecting public discourse as never before. Paddy Glut and Farmer Distress in Andhra Pradesh R V Ramana Murthy The artificial glut in paddy in Andhra Pradesh after the 2011 rabi was created by millers who cut down their purchases after an excellent harvest. Hyderabad.09 21. Anxious farmers hit the streets with dharnas across districts. The unprecedented arrival of paddy at the mandis threw the under-prepared state government into a tizzy.87 20.83 25.24 65. there was a record yield of 40 quintals per acre on an average.330 mm. Millers usually compete to buy most of this crop and the market price tends to be above the MSP.01 48.000 per acre when compared to what the MSP would have enabled them to garner.78 36. In 2008-09.43 25.78 17. and in some districts threatened to hold a “crop holiday” in the next season.59 R V Ramana Murthy (rvramana66@gmail.00 28. If the current elected government completes its tenure. Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics.03 15. a 30% rise over 2000-01 2001-02 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11* 30.72 35. 2011 vol xlvi no 29 27 . There is. If that happens and the democratic political process continues over the years. This caused severe distress to farmers.23 81. allowing journalists to do their job with less risk to their lives. holds elections.77 53.99 21. the previous year (Table 1).86 36.54 22.

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