Another tough spell for media in Pakistan: the tale of recent attacks on media workers

On 4th of January, 2011 the (late, former) Governor of Punjab was shot dead by one of his own guards, Mumtaz Qadri, on an alleged account of blasphemy. This was some time after Governor’s press conference in support for an accused under blasphemy law, and an interview conducted by a television anchorperson, Mehar Bukhari, discussing the repeal of these laws.

After almost 5 years, his murderer, in the early hours of Monday 29th Feb 2016, was hanged in Adiala Jail Rawalpindi. Qadri’s supporters erupted into violence and took to streets, thrashing and burning public property.

The electronic media of Pakistan, realising the sensitivities attached to the subject, and in a rare display of responsibility and public interest, practiced restrain and avoided over-exposure of the news.

Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) attempting to pre-empt the expected frenzy, issued advisories to television channels to “refrain from inciting violence through shows, tickers and reports.

The mob, however, had already started responding to moderate (or no) media coverage of violent protests and turned to violence against media workers present at the spot. Various madrassa students and religious political party workers attacked the camerapersons and the DSNG vans of News One and Dunya Television.

The media had to pull back in the face of high risk. It was difficult to ascertain the intensity of attacks due to the information blackout; the situation however cleared once the footages started pouring in.

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This is not the first instance of attack on media practitioners and establishments for blacking out the narratives of groups deemed ‘undesirable’ by the State. The National Action Plan, categorically bars the media outlets to report the statements of banned outfits, as a result of which the media workers and establishments are often at a risk of violence from extremist and/or militant groups. The recent wave of hatred against media for blacking out the supporters of Mumtaz Qadri has ignited a new debate on media freedom and new incidents of violence against media practitioners are feared. Some of them (Qadri supporters) have warned the media outlets and workers of dire consequences.

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The funeral of Mumtaz Qadri was held today in Rawalpindi, following which protests are expected. All major religious groups and political parties have given out calls to their workers to take to streets in protest. In such a high-tension environment many more attacks on media are feared.

The State’s attempts to control the media narrative on extremism and extremist groups under NAP have very real consequences for the media in Pakistan. The targeting of media personnel in Pakistan has continued with almost complete impunity for the last 15 years. In an environment where media workers already stand as a vulnerable group, attacks on whom bring no consequences for the perpetuators, State policies that seek to direct the media narrative in one way or other poses additional threats to the media. Over the last year, multiple incidents of attacks on journalists and media houses have been carried out as a protest against alleged one sided coverage’ that doesn’t include the extremist perspective. The State, in its attempt to curb the radical narrative has simply chosen to overlook the fact it has simultaneously endangered the media fraternity. The blow back of the media blackout on Qadri’s funeral can be potentially volatile and violent.

Responsible coverage of this incident was indeed needed to ensure that the situation wasn’t further fuelled. However, an almost complete blackout of coverage has simply increased the potential of violence against media. The State now needs to ensure that it takes measures to ensure that this threat, that has risen directly from following its own policies is monitored, checked and accordingly dealt with.

Asad Baig

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