Radio Mashaal Left Reporters Without A Legal Cover Despite Repeated Appeals By Pakistan Bureau
Zalmay Azad reports on how Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty dumped its bureau and reporters in Pakistan, leaving them without a legal cover and failing to engage with the Pakistani government after the ban. “The company’s management in Washington refused to come to the rescue of its reporters operating in a hostile environment in Pakistan”, he writes.
Pakistan has been witnessing media censorship over the last couple of years and some media groups have been complaining that their operations have been affected at the behest of powers that be.
However, a section of our society may disagree with the above observation and as they usually do – dub it propaganda to malign the country and its forces. But objective observers believe that both sides deserve to be blamed – powers that be for arms twisting and some media groups for brazenly favouring one political party so much so that instead of presenting facts, they have been manufacturing them.
I am not writing this piece to get into some blame game as in which media group sides with which political party as it’s quite obvious that subjective journalistic standards are in currency in Pakistani media groups.
However, what really disappointed me as a journalist and an activist are the unethical journalistic practices committed (still being committed) by the Prague based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-funded organization running several radio channels across the world.
In January 2018 Pakistani government shut down operations of Radio Mashaal in Pakistan after accusing it of supporting Pashtun ethno-nationalist sentiments as part of a campaign by hostile intelligence agencies. The closure was followed by a ban on Mashaal reporters to report from Pakistan.
The company’s management in Washington not only failed to engage the Pakistani government and allay its concerns but instead listened to Radio Mashaal managers in Prague and based on their recommendations, refused to come to the rescue of its reporters operating in a hostile environment in Pakistan.
The reporters had duly been requesting the managers in Prague to come to Pakistan and sit down with the policy makers to find a way out that could benefit both sides but they adamantly refused. They had also been informing the Prague management of the threats and harassment they were subjected to in the line of duty but to no avail.
Though efforts were made on behalf of the bureau chief and reporters in Islamabad but since no responsible person either from Washington or Prague made a sincere effort, the bureau is still closed and the issue unresolved which deprives millions of Radio Mashaal listeners from important field reporting during a crucial time in Pakistan’s checkered history.
To add insult to bureau’s efforts in Islamabad, in April RFL/RL management in Prague offered new freelance contracts to most journalists in Pakistan without taking the bureau into confidence. International media outlets such as BBC is a registered company with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.
Likewise Mashaal is registered with the name of Mashaal Communication Private Limited which gives it the legal cover to operate in Pakistan but the Prague based managers on one side misguided Washington telling it that it does not need a registered status in Pakistan, on the other it deprives its journalists of necessary legal protection.
Many prominent lawyers and senior journalists familiar with international media operations in Pakistan said that RFE/RL’s only option should be to reopen its bureau and the organization should refrain from going down a path that will eventually deny it any legal cover in the country.
The new contracts are discriminatory and coercive in nature forcing the newly engaged reporters into illegal secret reporting. Radio Mashaal’s senior management based in Prague is behind devising this scheme which puts the lives of around a dozen reporters at grave risk as the bureau is yet to open officially. It is alarming that the reporters have been deprived of any protection and formal affiliation with REF/RL. All are now reporting as freelancers.
While REF/RL has highlighted threats and intimidations to its journalists elsewhere in the world, it has failed to protect its reporters in Pakistan – one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Alam Zeb, former bureau chief who served Mashaal from 2011 to 2018 and wrote several emails before and after the closure voicing his apprehensions and requesting the management in Prague to come over to Pakistan but was told by Prague that the security situation in Pakistan did not allow Thomas Kent, (then) President RFE/RL to come to Pakistan and sort out the issue with the powers that be.
“I knew that Thomas Kent wanted to visit Pakistan and resolve this issue but was misguided by some members in the Prague based management (particularly Director Mashaal Radio and his Editor) telling him that security situation is not good for him to visit” Alam Zeb said.
Muhammed Imran, a reporter with Mashaal radio who refused to sign the new agreement working as a freelancer journalist shared his views saying that he was once abducted in Karachi and later got fired upon in the same city at a time when he was a regular reporter. “These incidents took place when I was a regular reporter, what would be my protection when I work as a freelancer with no legal cover?” Imran said.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for media workers but many in journalistic circles believe that Radio Mashaal’s problems piled up because of poor leadership in Prague, bad management practices and occasional sloppy journalism which gave Pakistani authorities reasons to seal it as a hostile media outlet.
Now during the last couple of weeks RFE management’s unprofessional and biased role has been exposed particularly in context of its treatment with Tajik Service followed by several other scandals.
Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked that he finds the current leadership of the agency (USAGM which supervised RFERL) unacceptable.
However during recent developments the issue of Mashaal Radio (as compared to Tajik and other services) got less attention both on national or international forum which seems injustice to the reporters over here.
There should be an unbiased and independent probe against those responsible in Prague who ignored the requests of the staff in Pakistan and left them and the Bureau Chief in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile Islamabad must make sure promoting free media is a priority. Its first step should be to end censorship and restrictions on international media operations. A free press is a prerequisite for democracy.
The author is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist and contributes to different national and international papers and journals.