Reporting Mashal Khan’s Death Was The Most Traumatising Moment Of My Career
Three years ago on April 13 as I sat on my desk in the newsroom going about my day, a shocking piece of news circulating on a journalists’ Whatsapp group grabbed my attention. There were reports of a tussle at a university in Mardan, Khyber Paktunkhwa over blasphemy allegations. Hearing the word ‘blasphemy’, I feared it might be more than just a ‘clash’.
Reporting Mashal Khan’s brutal death was an experience I can never forget, as it was more traumatizing than I thought it would be.
I immediately alerted the desk and people started looking up details. It had been a slow news day so folks in the newsroom were relieved we had some news to work on. By then we were not sure whether the victim had died, or how serious the fight was, or whether there was bloodshed. Some thought it may be just another ‘fight’ between two student groups which is a common occurrence on university campuses.
But as the harrowing details of the incident came in, it was hard for even the coldest person to not be moved. When we heard how Mashal Khan was lynched by his fellow students who even tortured his body, it took some time for us to get a sense of the situation. How can a small fight on a campus lead to lynching? Why didn’t the police act on time? We had a lot of questions in mind, but being able to process it all was not easy.
I reported the fresh updates on our website. And as further details of the case emerged, I kept working on them with a heavy heart. It was not an ordinary feeling. I had never felt this way before. Perhaps it was the thought that what happened to Mashal could be the fate of every thinking individual in Pakistan, anyone who is courageous enough to ask questions.
After getting home, I decided not to look at the news, for I did not want to hear anything about the lynching. But as I turned the TV off, I saw my fellow journalist Ailia Zehra speaking to a news channel about the Mashal Khan incident. I immediately stopped and decided that I should give her a call to ask how she is coping with this news. It was an uneasy night and I wanted to speak to a friend who felt about it as much as I did.
Ailia was shattered as she told me that a Mardan-based reporter shared with her how Mashal was an enlightened individual who was vocal against extremism and religious intolerance. We talked over the phone about the tragedy, the horror of university fields being painted red with blood of an innocent student and how helpless we were in this situation considering the state’s indifference.
In about a week it was business as usual. Some of us continued writing and speaking for him, but there were not enough voices demanding justice. Mashal Khan’s case may have been closed now with the accused being convicted, but the space for alternative ideas continues to shrink. And every year on his death anniversary, I am reminded of the fact that there is no place for freedom of dissent in Pakistan.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.