Laws Will Not Protect Pakistani Journalists: A New Social Contract Is Needed

The highest form of criminality is when the act and the perpetrator are known to all, well in advance. And the brazen attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor came with this sickening clockwork predictability. In the media, we knew of it in advance and had already braced ourselves for it.

For instance, in connection with a small question that I had about a recent report by him, I wrote to the fearless journalist. And at the end of a brief exchange, I wished that Toor “keep up the excellent work and please be safe.” It was a formal acknowledgement of what we both knew was about to happen, and perhaps a desperate appeal by me to some Power beyond the naked earthly powers. It was a prayer that he might be spared his coming ordeal – or at least not suffer the worst of what can happen to journalists in Pakistan.

As federal human rights minister under the PTI government, Shireen Mazari has been working hard on legislation such as the The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill 2021. Some in the media welcomed this effort quite publicly, in the hope that such efforts would help make journalists safer. But I worry that it might all end up being yet another futile exercise in splitting legal hairs while the actual problem remains unaddressed – either by design or from helplessness. All too often, when faced by the reality of hybrid-ruled Pakistan, we see this resort to spectacular, well-meaning little displays of policy-making and legislation, while leaving the big political questions to those with real power.

One might imagine, from the discussion on the bill to protect journalists, that perhaps Pakistan’s media workers drive through a minefield on their way to work everyday. But is it not so. Just like other citizens, media workers in Pakistan are subject to the usual torment of poverty, precarious work, exploitative bosses and a lack of social security. That slow death under capitalism, shared with other Pakistanis, is not what makes them look over their shoulders as they drive home every night. It is not what makes them establish protocols for family and friends in case ‘something’ happens to them. It does not define the ‘red lines’ beyond which they cannot report or comment.

There is only one source of directly life-threatening violence to journalists here: impunity.

In fact, we can further narrow down who enjoys total impunity in a post-MQM Pakistan. That would be two all-powerful forces: those who monopolize the right to decide on national security, and those who monopolize the authority to interpret religion. Nobody else in Pakistan enjoys such impunity – although many would love to have it, of course.

No amount of well-meaning legislation will ever protect journalists. This is because it fails to address the basic political question at play:
What about those who consider themselves above laws and have the brutish power to get away with it?

To keep journalists alive and unharmed, we don’t need legal firework displays from the ruling party or the opposition. Instead, history calls upon them to decide on something more fundamental: does the constitution apply to all of us, or only some of us? This core issue will never be decided in legislation, but by the willingness to confront those who think that the constitution is merely a piece of paper, applicable only to the weak.

The safety of Pakistan’s journalists is linked to this great country-wide question in our time: the struggle for a new social contract. Our existing social contract is based on pure ideological dishonesty and coercion. In the string of attacks on journalists in recent months, there is one common thread: that they took a strong position on this core issue facing Pakistani society. Those targeted have been prominent voices arguing for a new social contract. While the government and the opposition wring their hands helplessly on this issue, many courageous Pakistani journalists have already been paying the price for their clear position: alone, helpless, unbowed.

Pakistan’s journalists have faced an extraordinary wave of censorship recently, enforced by the Known Unknowns through informal and overwhelming violence. A clear pattern is emerging. Let us lay it out for the record.

It begins with bloodcurdling threats by people who waste no time in introducing themselves. If that doesn’t work, then the media organizations are forced to deprive these journalists of their jobs through threats to the owners. If this fails to silence them, and the journalists take to social media and Youtube, it escalates to attacks and abductions.

Many media workers who “play by the rules” are deeply unhappy. This is not just because they feel the injustice of how the rules are made by thuggish means. It is also because they know that the ‘red lines’ are constantly shifting. At any moment, you can find yourself on the wrong side of them. It is a situation that leaves them smouldering in anger.

As staffers and editors, people like myself have tried to ensure a non-violent outcome in our work in the Pakistani media. For me, personally, this usually means extensive reconnaissance to know where the ‘red lines’ are, and all manner of gymnastics to avoid overstepping them – or letting reporters and writers do so.

The task of an editor is a curiously ambiguous one in today’s Pakistani media landscape. We are the vanguard of the regime’s censorship, and the first line of defence for free expression – depending on how one chooses to view the situation.

On the one hand, our job involves not just the usual quality-control that all editors do worldwide, but also the enforcement of self-censorship on our reporters and writers, based on what we know of the ‘red lines’ imposed by the Deep State and religious fundamentalist vigilantes. On the other hand, we present the audience with an end-product that is as faithful as possible to the original intentions of the reporter or commentator – and if this were not done, there would be no platform for their work.

Sometimes this self-censorship takes the form of a quick message to a reporter or writer, letting them know that their naming of some specific organization be replaced with the more general “security apparatus” or “religious parties.” A knowing smile and a “Sure, go ahead!” from them makes an editor’s day easier. At other times, it involves telling them that in the interests of their own safety and the continued existence of the media platform in question, the piece that they just filed cannot be carried at all, unless it is massively reworked.

An editor’s conscience is rarely at ease anywhere in the world. It is ever more troubled by Pakistan’s existing social contract: something entirely beyond the control of an individual media worker.

But there is an increasing number of journalists who are unhappy to accept the arbitrary and ever-shifting ‘red lines.’ They insist that the only set of rules that they will play by is what is formally written in Pakistani law. There is no real way curb their willingness to uphold their principled stance. And there is no real way to contain the impotent, horrific violence of those who want to put a lid on them. It all sets the stage for more intimidation of journalists in the coming months and years.

This impasse will result in more egregious attacks on journalists, and it cannot be resolved with legislation. Before sitting down to make laws, the government and opposition must decide whether they want to run the country, or leave it to elements who they cannot dare subject to Pakistani sovereignty.