05/23/2013 08:42 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan Democracy, and Journalist Murders

By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator

Nawaz Sharif is poised to become Pakistan’s new prime minister in the first peaceful transition of civilian governments in the country’s history. With this milestone, Pakistani citizens are regaining control of their government from an unelected security and military apparatus that has long operated without civilian oversight and that has always been ready to seize power. The country’s embattled news media deserves much credit for creating a robust debate ahead of the May elections, which, for all the violence, delivered a democratic verdict. Now, Sharif’s government must act to ensure the security of the Pakistani press, one of the nation’s most effective democratic institutions, but, as a new CPJ report finds, one that has been targeted for murder, intimidation, and manipulation. And it’s not only warlords and militants who are behind the anti-press violence; the attacks come from within government itself--from intelligence, military, and political operatives.

Between 2003 and 2012, CPJ research shows, 23 journalists were murdered in Pakistan in direct reprisal for their work, making it the fourth deadliest nation in the world for the press. In at least seven murder cases, CPJ found that government, military, or intelligence officials were the likely perpetrators. These targeted killings have taken place with perfect impunity: Not a single journalist murder has been successfully prosecuted over the past decade. Take the case of Wali Khan Babar, a correspondent for Geo TV who was shot on a busy street in Karachi in January 2011. Police arrested several suspects affiliated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a leading political party, but the case has been derailed by threats, intimidation, and murders of key figures in the investigation. Five witnesses or law enforcement officials connected to the case have been slain, and two prosecutors were fired without explanation.

More complex are the circumstances surrounding the murder of Mukarram Khan Aatif, a senior journalist in the tribal region who was shot during evening prayers in January 2012. Aatif, who had worked for Deewa Radio, the Pashto-language service of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, was a careful and savvy reporter who had worked for years in one of the most violent conflict zones in the Af-Pak theater. The Taliban took responsibility for the hit, but Aatif’s colleagues doubt the claim. As journalist Elizabeth Rubin reports for CPJ, Aatif had recently covered a deadly U.S. military attack against a Pakistani army post in Salala. The Taliban, it turned out, were operating freely in Salala--right next to the Pakistani army. Immediately after his reports had aired, Aatif was threatened repeatedly by intelligence and military officials. Several CPJ sources believe government officials were behind the killing. Disclosing links between the military and militants, after all, is a red line that is not to be crossed.

Given all of Pakistan’s problems--“unfair allocation of resources, military domination of the economy, corruption, impunity, debt, terrorism, sectarian killings,” as Rubin describes them--why should the new government expend resources on journalists’ security? In a country with weak civilian institutions--insufficiently supported police and prosecutors among them--the press is intrinsic to Pakistan’s democratic future. The elections that brought Sharif to power are proof of that. The news media’s campaign coverage put the issues and candidates before the public. Set aside the violence, and what you saw in Pakistan was an exercise in democracy that met the criteria needed to legitimately change a government. It might not have been a perfect process, but without the participation of the media it would have been an abject failure.

Despite Pakistan’s record of anti-press violence, this is a moment of great opportunity. Pakistani news media are more vibrant and unified than ever. In March, representatives from 40 local and international organizations came together to craft an unprecedented plan to improve journalist safety and combat impunity. The undertaking is the first to launch under a new, United Nations-sponsored effort to improve journalist safety worldwide.

Sharif should seize this moment and join with Pakistani media in creating a just and safe climate. His government can start by reopening investigations into the 23 unsolved journalist murders over the past decade; by providing sufficient staffing and funding for police and prosecutors; and by enacting statutory oversight of the nation’s intelligence services. Media organizations are doing their part by expanding security training and strengthening cooperative efforts to speak as one on issues of safety. The international community is ready to support these efforts with funding and expertise.

By ensuring the effective prosecution of journalists’ killers and halting the era of anti-press violence, Sharif and his new government will be protecting Pakistani democracy for years to come.

Bob Dietz, coordinator of CPJ's Asia Program, has reported across the continent for news outlets such as CNN and Asiaweek. He has led numerous CPJ missions, including ones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

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