PESHAWAR — Journalists covering the United States–led “war-on-terror” in Pakistan’s turbulent Northwest are not sure who wants them out of the way more — the Taliban or the Pakistan army.
So, when Hazrat Khan Mohmand, who works with the AVT Khyber TV Channel, was brutally beaten up by masked men on Aug. 22 near the Peshawar High Court, neither he nor his supporters knew where or whom to turn to.
“Two people riding a motorcycle intercepted our car and hit me with bricks without uttering a single word,” Khan, now recuperating at home after several days of hospitalization, told IPS.
Both the government as well as the Taliban quickly condemned the attack on Khan and vowed to bring his attackers to justice.
The record, however, is that no one has been held responsible for the 16 journalists killed in Pakistan since 2005, leading to charges by peace activists that a culture of impunity pervades the country.
Reporters covering the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are particularly vulnerable and consider it pointless to approach the police — since they appear to be part of the problem rather than the solution.
On Aug. 19, the crew of another private TV channel, Samaa, was stopped by police at a mosque in Peshawar, the scene of a suicide bombing, and beaten up severely.
In a more blatant case of police highhandedness, on Aug. 6, the office of Mashriq, a local Urdu-language daily, was vandalized. On this occasion, however, the government suspended three police officers and ordered an inquiry.
“We are a democratic people and hold journalists in high esteem because they are the eyes and ears of society, and pointing out the wrongdoings of the government is part of their duty,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, told IPS.
Curiously, Hussain blamed the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for the attack on the Mashriq office. He vowed to have the policemen sacked should the charges against them be proved.
As if on cue the TTP spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan, also condemned the attack, saying that it would launch its own investigation and punish the perpetrators.
“We are caught between the Taliban and the army. There is an urgent need to provide safety to journalists,” said Arshad Aziz Malik of the Khyber Union of Journalists at a meeting called to denounce the savaging of Mohmand.
Shamsul Islam Naz, a former secretary of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, told IPS: “The Taliban want the journalists to run news in a way that suits them while the army is forcing them to make reports that favor the forces.”
“Both the army and the Taliban are behind the attacks and killings of journalists. Both want journalists to either stop reporting, or write in their favor,” says Zuhra Yusuf, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Speaking with IPS over telephone from Lahore, Yusuf said investigations carried out by the HRCP indicated different patterns of attacks in the provinces and areas that border Afghanistan.
“In Balochistan, the state agencies are involved in assassination and abduction of reporters as part of attempts to cover up oppressive tactics against the people,” she said.
“In Swat [a district of Khyber Pakhtunkwa that was subjected to a Pakistani army operation against the Taliban in 2009] the militants are responsible for killing and kidnapping of journalists because they don’t want reports of their atrocities to appear in the media,” she said.
“Since 2009 we have sent two fact-finding missions to Swat and both squarely blamed the Taliban for attacks on journalists,” Yusuf added.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has promised bulletproof vests to journalists and said the government is even looking at a plan to provide bulletproof vehicles for the crews of private TV channels.
“We also need to provide training to journalists so they can take care of themselves while covering violence-prone zones,” he told IPS.
Senior editor with Geo TV Hamid Mir says he would go with the idea that journalists should look after themselves. “We have to take our own safety measures, and we can start by creating unity among ourselves.”
Mir said, however, that the last few years have been particularly hard for journalists in the northwest because the government — for all the talk of bulletproof vests and armored vehicles — appeared to be “looking the other way.”
“There is an urgent need for a reaction from the Pakistani authorities,” Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), the international body that advocates press freedom, said in a statement following the attack on Mohmand.
“If security measures are not adopted quickly, coverage of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and the neighboring FATA will become impossible for local journalists, who are caught in the crossfire,” the statement said.
In its Press Freedom Index for 2010, RSF ranked Pakistan 151st out of 178 countries and named Pakistan as one of “10 countries where it is not good to be a journalist.”