Justice Eludes Journalists in Pakistan

In one of the world’s most deadly countries for journalists, it’s not a lack of legal procedures but a lack of political will that is hindering the investigation and prosecution of threats to reporters.

Pakistan continues to hold competitive positions in multiple credible global indexes—albeit all the wrong ones. We might have fallen on the gender gap index and the human development index, but have definitely scored on Transparency International’s recent Corruption Perceptions Index. We have also continuously (although brazenly) topped another index for three years now: “World’s Most Dangerous Country for Journalists.”

Since 2000, a staggering 90 journalists have been killed, countless threated, harassed, intimidated, abducted, and attacked. Most of the cases go unregistered. Investigations for those that can even boast the basic FIR (First Information Report, lodged at local police stations) are endlessly and sometimes deliberately delayed, and perpetrators roam free. So what is the reason behind the lack of legal follow up of journalist murders?

“In case of a [journalist] killing, unless the family comes and charges a particular person, our criminal justice system completely fails. If the family of a victim nominates an accused, there is a chance of some investigations but otherwise none,” says Kamran Arif, a prominent lawyer and co-chair of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Journalists’ unions express similar helplessness. Amin Yousuf, general secretary of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist, says: “It’s impossible to get legal support in cases of threats and killing of journalists. Investigation and prosecution aside not even FIR has been registered in some cases. We have no legal protection at all. We have no legal resources to pursue the cases of slain journalists in courts.”

Activists working on journalist safety issues have often lamented the lack of a supporting legal framework that allows journalists’ murders to be properly investigated. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists also holds the same position. PFUJ Secretary General Amin Yousuf explains: “We have no legal resources to pursue the cases of slain journalists in courts. What we need is a network of trained lawyers to help us reopen investigations and cope with regular proceedings.”

Saif-ul-Islam Saifee, president of Peshawar Press Club, deals with the reality of threats to journalists on a daily basis. His province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is notoriously known for journalist targeting. According to Saifee, “Current legal mechanisms and laws are not effective. The situation will not improve unless special measures are taken.

“There is a need for legislation for journalists’ safety without the usual complexities of current laws and the draft bill has to be prepared with all stakeholders on board.”

A special law to protect free journalism is not a new concept. Multiple high-risk countries have experimented with different models of designating a special prosecutor for journalist killings. Among the most recent examples is Mexico.

Mexico has recently federalized crimes against journalists and introduced laws to protect journalists/human right defenders and a Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Free Expression. But while the Mexican government has been swift in introducing new mechanisms, international watchdogs have termed them “inadequate and ineffective.”

Can a similar model work in Pakistan? Prominent lawyer and co-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Kamran Arif, remains skeptical.

“Prosecutors in our scheme of things don’t make a lot of difference; it’s the investigation which has to be almost completely in the hands of police. Part of the problem is lack of will, but it’s also their lack of ability to investigate. Government has to be serious about it. There might be special investigators for killings but a special prosecutor might not be that effective," says Arif.

The futility of special measures for investigation and prosecution in the current setup in Pakistan has been highlighted in the past. The Hayat Ullah case is one example.

“A high-level commission was formed to investigate the killing of Hayat Ullah but its report, even after one year of its completion, has not yet made public,” says Saif-ul-Islam Saifi.

The constitution of a special investigative commission to investigate the more recent Saleem Shahzad murder was touted as a giant step forward; however the report did not go beyond hinting at a possible involvement of intelligence agencies but did not charge anyone in particular. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has often made public promises to the media to investigate journalist killings but has yet to deliver on his promise. It would appear that rather than a lack of legal procedures to conduct the investigation, it is a lack of political will that is creating a hindrance in legal follow up of threats to journalists. Safdar Dawar, president the Tribal Union of Journalists, expresses concerns about the government’s commitment towards the cause:

“In FATA, all governance systems are weak except for state agencies. It’s not in the interest of government to investigate cases of targeting, for they will prove either the incompetency of security forces or the involvement of agencies themselves.”

Looking at the perspectives of journalist leaders and human rights defenders, one can conclude that having a special law for journalists might be one of the options. But until we get there, investigation and prosecution has to be done within the mainstream legal system. As Kamran Arif puts it, we need to strengthen and make functional what is already there through resource allocation and government determination to solve these cases.

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