The near-fatal shooting last weekend of Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s best-known TV anchormen, looks like becoming a symbol of a wider challenge to the survival of free journalism – not just in Pakistan but in a growing number of countries where journalists are frequent targets for assassination.
What follows after the attempt to kill Hamid Mir matters not only to Pakistani democracy but to journalism around the world. That life-or-death struggle for press freedom is increasingly being recognised by the world’s media, and by the member states of the UN.
The BBC has played a part in pushing the issues of journalist killings and impunity – that is, chronic failures to bring those responsible for such attacks to justice – up the international agenda. Just two weeks ago the BBC hosted a major symposium on journalists’ safety, attended by 60 global news editors, journalists and top media lawyers.
That meeting resulted in a public statement supported by more than 50 representatives of global news organisations. It was also the occasion for a public protest outside the BBC’s headquarters in London and observation of a minute’s silence to symbolise the silencing of journalists across the world through violence, intimidation and wrongful imprisonment.
At the symposium, one speaker after another from Pakistan, Brazil, Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine delivered a similar message: they face intolerable dangers in their home country and urgently need practical support from outside, including from the media in parts of the world where journalism can still be practised freely.
BBC Urdu Service reporter Saba Eitezaz’s video report highlighted the harsh reality that international news media working in Pakistan face direct threats to their physical safety, just as their local colleagues do.
Saba’s report showed how the intense pressures on journalists not to report on sensitive issues involving state security agencies or insurgents were leading to self-censorship, depriving the population of the right to be informed of the realities of their own society.
The head of Pakistan’s Media Safety Coalition, Owais Aslam Ali, urged the biggest names in global media, such as CNN and the BBC, to put their names forward as supporters of the coalition’s hard struggle to win better physical and legal protection for journalists in danger in Pakistan.
And a senior colleague of Hamid’s at Geo News, Faysal Aziz Khan, set out the specific changes he said would be needed to reverse the tide of violence and intimidation in his country.
Those should, he said, include a truly independent commission of inquiry into every serious assault against a journalist, and hard-nosed, exhaustive reporting efforts by the media themselves to track down the perpetrators of abductions, torture and killings of so many journalists.
Faysal, who is Geo News bureau chief in Karachi, explained how the network’s own persistent detective work had helped to bring about the convictions of six people recently found guilty of the 2011 murder of one of his closest colleagues, Wali Khan Babar. Those were literally the first convictions ever secured, he said, out of 54 targeted killings of journalists in recent years in Pakistan.
Since that safety symposium in London, these urgent issues have been thrown into even sharper relief by the armed attack on Hamid Mir and the killing of yet another Pakistani journalist, Shahzad Iqbal, last Tuesday, as well as the abduction of several journalists in eastern Ukraine.
At the 7 April event, BBC head of global news Peter Horrocks articulated some fresh thinking about the implications for global journalism. He said the BBC and other large media organisations were not doing as much “coverage and influencing” regarding issues of the growing dangers to journalism as they might. Powerful news organisations owed it to their fellow news professionals in the greatest need to help protect them, he said.
And there was an explicit connection between the increasing threats to journalists in the most dangerous corners of the world and the everyday business of deploying journalists who work for big organisations like the BBC.
Peter Horrocks pointed to the murder of Anja Niedringhaus, the Associated Press photo-journalist who was shot dead in Afghanistan on 4 April: “Every time a murder like that of Anja Niedringhaus goes unpunished, your next journalist in the same location is under even greater threat.”
There was in fact another very particular link between the shooting of Hamid Mir and the combined efforts of the BBC and the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at the University of Sheffield to encourage new strategic thinking about this complex of issues: Hamid Mir had come to London to speak at an earlier symposium on journalists’ safety which was held at BBC Broadcasting House in October 2012.
He said then that he felt caught in the “crossfire” between hostile elements of Pakistan’s security services and the Taliban. Both sides had directly threatened him, he said, but “so far I’ve been lucky”. This week it seems he has been lucky once again. At least he has escaped with his life.
The best thing other journalists can do now for Hamid and others like him is surely to ask the tough questions of governments and others who fail to live up to their obligation to uphold a safe environment for free and independent journalism.
The alternative will be more of the same, or worse.
William Horsley writes on the BBC College of Journalism blog
UPDATE (25 April):
Hamid Mir has issued from hospital his first statement since the armed attack on him last Saturday. In it he said that before the attack he had told officials of Pakistan’s state Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) that he feared an attempt on his life would be made by members of the agency. He complained that no action had been taken against those who had issued telephone death threats against him, even though he had informed police of the telephone numbers used by those making the threats.
Hamid Mir condemned the current attempt by state authorities to forcibly close down Geo News. He also expressed fears over the security of his brother Amir Mir and other family members, and said if they were harmed the responsibility would lie with state elements and the government.
CFOM worked with BBC Global News and the College of Journalism to organise the 7 April symposium Making the Protection of Journalists a Reality: Time to end Impunity. The CFOM website has full details of the event.