In Pakistan's most populated city of Karachi, a deadly battle waged by the Taliban against the country's independent news media is alarmingly getting out of the control of government authorities. The Muslim extremist group is the newest but the most lethal among many actors that unleash brute force to gain control of the port city and fully influence its media that also caters to the whole country.
On January 17, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (T.T.P.), claimed responsibility for the killing of three media personnel of the Express News, a private channel, in Karachi. According to the police accounts, armed men riding motorcycles opened fire at the digital satellite news gathering (D.S.N.G.) van of the news company. The attack killed a technician, driver and their security guard. It was the third organized attack on the Express News since the first one in August 2013. The Taliban are believed to be behind the last two attacks as well although they were not as deadly as Friday's incident.
Ironically, a T.T.P. spokesman called up Express News itself and confirmed his organization's involvement in the attack. The T.T.P. poses itself as a victim of the news media's "pro-government propaganda". It complains that the news channels depict them as the "bad guys" which, according to the T.T.P. viewpoint, violates journalistic standards.
"I promise you that if Pakistani media comes out of this war [between the government and the Taliban] and limits itself to its journalistic role, then we will not carry out any attack on them," said the T.T.P spokesman who was quoted in Express Tribune, an English language newspaper published by the same company that runs Express News channel.
The Taliban do not only justify their attacks but they also demand equal air time for propagation of their extremist ideology in the news media. This is a bizarre expectation but completely snubbing their demand is likely to endanger the lives of several other journalists in the future. If one media group concedes to the Taliban wishes out of fear of being attacked, the free media will ultimately end up compromising its integrity and reliability among the masses.
The Taliban have brutally engaged in killing innocent people, mostly in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K.P) and now in the city of Karachi. They have not spared women and children in their attacks as they have shot dead several female polio workers. When the media in Pakistan highlights these human rights abuses by the Taliban, the latter describes it as media's partiality and submission to the government propaganda.
The fresh attacks on the media houses and their personnel in Karachi are not the mere reflection of intolerance toward independent reporting. They are an extension of a preexisting ethnic and ideological conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives in Karachi dating back to 1980s. This conflict has only recently gained momentum and engulfed the local media.
Karachi is the epicenter of an incessant tussle between various indefatigable ethnic groups that fight to establish their control over the city. The Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, who emigrated from India in 1947 to the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan, are the dominant ethnic group who account for nearly 49% of the city's population. They are largely represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (M.Q.M.), a party that identifies itself as "liberal" but is frequently blamed for applying violent methods to achieve political goals.
Since the inception, the natives of Karachi, the Sindhis and the Baloch, have viewed the Urdu-speakers as "colonizers" and usurper of their land. The latest phase of anti-Muhajir resistance now involves the Pashtuns who, according to one estimate, constitute nearly 11% of the city's population. Since the beginning of the war on terror in 2001, Karachi has witnessed an exodus of Pashtuns from the country's tribal region who escaped the military operation in their areas and found protection and better economic opportunity in Karachi. The significant influx of the Pashtuns has alerted the M.Q.M as it is destined to cause demographic imbalance in the city.
There are reports about the presence of the Taliban in Karachi but the way the M.Q.M. blows the issue out of proportion, it further alienate the Pashtun citizens who feel they are intentionally billed 'terrorists' or supporters of the Taliban. Of course, it is unreasonable to blame the entire Pashtun population for the actions of the Taliban.
Unfortunately, the increasing attacks on the media in Karachi also has an ethnic touch that traces its roots to the ongoing tensions between the Taliban and the M.Q.M. Just like the Taliban, the M.Q.M. is also blamed for killing journalists.
Last week, I appeared along with a senior representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) and two other senior Pakistani journalists on a Huffington Post live panel discussion to mark the third death anniversary of Wali Khan Babar, a 28-year television reporter. An ethnic Pashtun, Babar worked for Geo Television and, according to C.P.J., was killed on the instructions of the M.Q.M. Three years after Babar's murder, justice has not been served because the M.Q.M. has deeply penetrated in the local and regional government. Even the governor of the Sindh province, where Babar was killed, belongs to the M.Q.M. At least seven people, who could testify in Babar's murder case, have all been systematically killed one after the other.
What appears to be a wave of violence against journalists in Karachi is actually a battle between the M.Q.M. and the Taliban for their survival. It is appalling that journalists are becoming the victims of this nasty battle. If the Pakistani authorities do not immediately tackle the Taliban and end ethnic violence in Karachi, more journalists will have to face the heat of this senseless violence.
The more the media is terrorized, the more it will lose its ability to report independently on critical national issues. A media that falls in the hands of the Taliban terrorist or the M.Q.M. goons will only become a tool for spreading communal disharmony, chaos and tensions instead of deepening the roots of the free media and democracy in Pakistan.