October 15, 2018

Safe nowhere: Impunity in ‘digital’ violence against journalists in Pakistan

Do you know that more than 900 journalists have been killed over a decade? Do you know that in nine out of ten reported cases, the perpetrators of violence against journalists could not be apprehended?

The impunity against journalists is not a new phenomenon. However, the international community recognized this issue after a 2013 UN resolution condemned attacks on journalists and proclaimed 2nd November as “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.” The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali on 2nd November 2013.

This year, as journalists around the world gather to commemorate the day, Pakistani journalists are recalling the brutal murders and attacks on their fellow journalists with nearly absolute impunity. Pakistani journalists have long spoken about the “unknown” elements that not only verbally threaten them but also get away from physical assaults. Since June 2017, three such cases have emerged. Recently, a journalist working for The News Ahmed Noorani was attacked in broad daylight in the capital city of Islamabad by six armed men. Earlier,  Matiullah Jan was attacked with bricks while he was in his car with his family in Islamabad. Similarly, journalist Azaz Syed averted attempted kidnapping by taking shelter in a nearby police station.

In the midst of this, Internet is another front where the “unknown” elements quite often organize vilification campaigns with impunity against journalists to tarnish their reputation, incite violence against them and inflict psychological harm.  In some cases, the online verbal abuse is followed by physical violence.

The case of Ahmed Noorani is one such example. Noorani was beaten up on October 27, 2017. A series of events that took place before it culminated into a physical attack on him. On October 19, 2017, news came that Ahmed Noorani shut down his twitter account.  This came as a shock for fellow journalists who had been following his witty tweets and reflections on the political situation in Pakistan.  His close friends indicated vaguely that he was under a lot of pressure from various quarters for his write-ups and social media posts. “He has stopped talking to us. He mostly remains silent now even if he is sitting with us,” shared one close friend. This reflected the state of psychological stress through which Noorani was undergoing. However, nobody had a clue as to who had pressurized him into deactivating his twitter account. 

An hour before six armed men brutally assaulted Ahmed Noorani, the scribe tried to find out why he had deactivated his Twitter account. While Noorani insisted that taking down twitter account was his personal decision, he acknowledged that external pressures on his news organization made him realize that he should into the background for some time.  When asked if expression online had increased the threats to journalists, he said: “There is no doubt that social media has a basic role in narrative building. That is why various stakeholders are taking a keen interest in it. The situation is no different in Pakistan. However, the only problem is that when journalists use social media and write something on it, the reaction comes in the form of threats, also directed towards family members.“

While Noorani was making subtle references to  online pressures against journalists, Matiullah Jan, a journalist from Waqt News minced no words and said: 

“There are some institutions, some political parties that work as touts for establishment that put pressure on professional journalist for not toeing their line and do dirty propaganda against them. They did the same propaganda against Talat Hussain (on social media). They did the same against me, saying that I was ‘expelled’ from the military. The character assassination doesn’t end here. Despite this, we believe that social media should not be shut down.”

A journalist and a talk show host Talat Hussain had also lately been a target of smear campaign on social media. Earlier, he was accused of favoring one political party over the other.  On October 18, 2017 he had to take to social media to voice his concern at the campaign:

Gul Bukhari, a journalist, and an activist believes that all this propaganda over social media is owing to the unimaginable power Internet has entrusted upon the journalists. “In the past, when people only had newspaper and TV, the life cycle of the news articles was very limited. However, with the emergence of social media, when the same news articles and video clips from TV channel are shared on social media, their life gets perpetual.”

Ms. Bukhari also shared with the scribe that as compared to conventional mainstream media, it was difficult for authorities to censor content over the internet. “Earlier, it was easier to force newspaper to censor an article or twist the arms of cable operators to censor a news channel…(Now) if somebody tweets something (over the internet), it is difficult for authorities to censor it, request to Twitter to take it down.,You know, these corporations do not comply with every request that the government makes…”

However, the basic question remains how to deal with the impunity in online spaces?  According to Gul, journalists need to speak up every time they are threatened, censored online or even abducted for their expression. “Without raising hue and cry in a unified manner, you cannot fight back impunity.” 

On the other hand, Matiullah urges government to take action against the online trolls: “…I believe that the government should also go after the groups who spread propaganda and false information and hold them accountable….”

Will the journalists be able to win the battle against impunity in cyberspace?  Will they ever be able to speak their minds freely online?

Ahmed Noorani advocates for a future where there is less online abuse and respect for divergent opinions: “There should be no problem with writing…If you do not agree with my opinions, it should be discarded. If I am being biased, I should be exposed rather than abused online or declared corrupt.” 

Written by

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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