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Accountability Of State Institutions Needed To End Violence Against Dissenting Journalists

It is a cruel irony that a journalist was brutally thrashed in the federal capital in the same week as the presentation of the ‘Protection of Journalists’ bill in the National Assembly. Three masked men broke into journalist Asad Ali Toor’s flat in Islamabad on Tuesday night and tortured him after tying him up.

In his statement to the police, the journalist stated that while beating him up, the assailants kept accusing him of receiving foreign funding (an oft-repeated allegation against journalists critical of the establishment) and forced him to chant ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans. In a recent vlog, Asad Toor had said that he was being harassed and threatened but vowed to continue doing his job despite the threats.

This latest instance of physical attack on a journalist makes it clear that Islamabad has become increasingly unsafe for media personnel. Earlier, journalists Absar Alam and Matiullah Jan faced similar violence. According to a report released in May, six journalists in Pakistan were killed, 5 kidnapped, 27 faced charges and 25 were arrested in the last 12 months. The report also described Islamabad as the most dangerous place in the country for reporters.

Those who are supposed to protect journalists, meanwhile, remain in a state of denial. Rubbishing all concerns about suppression of free speech in the country, Prime Minister Imran Khan had last year said during his talk on an international forum that media in Pakistan is freer than the UK media. The PM’s statement represented his government’s overall response to complaints of harassment by journalists as well as its disregard for freedom of speech.

Pakistani cyberspace has become extremely hostile for dissenting journalists over the past two years. Women journalists in particular face vicious troll attacks often amplified and encouraged by ministers and members of the ruling party. And when these journalists complain of attacks, they are accused of playing the victim card.

A social media campaign had begun following the attack on journalist Absar Alam whereby it was alleged that the incident was ‘planted’ and that the journalist had himself attacked to gain coverage. Some of these detractors shared old clips to prove Alam’s association with the PML-N in a bid to justify the violence perpetuated against him. The same justification and whataboutery is taking place in the wake of the attack on Asad Toor.

That Toor’s tormentors repeated the accusation of ‘foreign funding’ and treason levelled against journalists on social media indicates the similarity between hateful online campaigns and the violence committed on ground. It shows how online campaigns against journalists may culminate into physical violence.

People are praising Toor’s courage following the attack, but it is our collective failure when journalists have to be this brave merely to do their everyday job. The state’s shameful role in this violence adds insult to injury.

Asad Ali Toor brought to light many shocking facts while reporting the sham trial of SC judge Justice Qazi Faez Isa and the victimisation of his wife. His coverage of the Justice Isa case revealed how the state machinery was up against the judge because he had ruffled many a feather due to his scathing verdicts. When the apex court ultimately ruled in favour of the judge and put to rest the victimisation initiated against him by the PTI government at the behest of the powers-that-be, a fresh wave of propaganda began against him. When the judgement was first announced, some pro-establishment analysts began to spin it to imply that the SC verdict accepting Justice Isa’s review petitions means that in the future no judge can be held accountable by any institution, not even by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC). Despite the fact that the SC judgement on Justice Isa’s petitions gives no blanket immunity to judges, they tried to create a narrative that the verdict reeks of misuse of power because it says the judges cannot be held accountable due to their position.

Social media accounts supporting the government expressed the same sentiments in an organised online campaign against Justice Isa following the SC decision. This propaganda against Justice Isa and his wife continues.

The violence committed against Asad Toor therefore ought to be seen in the context of this frustration among powerful quarters caused by the SC verdict vindicating Justice Isa in a case Toor had extensively followed and covered. Legislation will make no difference to end this intimidation and harassment of journalists if the culture of impunity and unaccountability of state institutions continues.

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Naya Daur