In the line of fire

In Bhutan and Maldives journalism is passing through a phase of rudimentary development; Nepal and Sri Lanka are the places where the media is firmly established; while as in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it retained vibrancy

Following is the text of the report released on Media scene in South Asia by SAFMA on December 28 at Lahore

Although 19 journalists and one media worker killed in 2010, the media scene in South Asia presented a wide spectrum of quality.

In Afghanistan, pleasantly surprising new media persons came to the fore working for an institution with little indigenous grounding, which actually reflected the nature of the state of Afghanistan. It was vulnerable to conditions of mis-governance and terrorism, and was presided over by a government not yet ready to show a sense of responsibility to the function of accountability performed by the mainly donor-funded ‘free’ media.

In Bhutan and Maldives journalism is passing through a phase of rudimentary development, but with a clear promise to sink roots which can supplement institutions that stand for responsibility and accountability. In the case of Nepal and Sri Lanka, where the media is more firmly established, conditions of rebellion and authoritarianism severely curtailed its ability to face up to the odds facing any journalist devoted to the function of honest reporting.

In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the media remained vibrant with interesting and important variations that gave them distinct identities. In India, where the foundation of free media was established earlier than in any of the other states of South Asia, the media has developed away from ‘statement journalism’ and begun to concentrate on human interest and entertainment-related stories in response to the people’s cloying with national politics and a healthy interest in the national economy. Because of the rise of commercialism, however, some negative developments within the media community have attracted controversy and debate.

In Pakistan, the media arose as a powerful fourth pillar of the state presiding over the national trend towards non-political accountability. The year saw growing public interest in political developments and political debate, making governance somewhat difficult but serving the higher interest of the public’s right to know the facts relating to the running of the state. Because of the conflict in various regions of the country and the steady trend of terrorist attacks, media persons continued to face dangers of persecution and bodily harm at the hands of militant elements as well as state agencies.

In Bangladesh, somewhat like Pakistan, the media stood by the Supreme Court as it asserted itself under the general rubric of ‘activism’. The only difference was that whereas the media stood behind the judiciary in Pakistan, it was divided in Bangladesh. In the streets, bipartisan political strife continued, often catching media persons in the crossfire. The Bangladeshi media has been described as bipartisan as the political system itself, which was seen by many as a polarisation of an institution that should be committed to non-partisan scrutiny of the political scene.


Afghanistan

Afghanistan faced a situation similar to that of Pakistan. The media was under attack from the Taliban who used intimidation and threat of torture and even death to prevent negative reporting about their activities. In 2010, two journalists — Rupert Hamer, defence correspondent of the Sunday Mirror, and Sayed Hamid Noori, former anchor for state network Radio Television Afghanistan — were killed owing to their journalistic work. Hamer, the first British journalist to be killed in Afghanistan, died in a blast targeting a military convoy. Noori, who after an active journalistic life joined politics as a media spokesperson of Mohammad Yunus Qanooni’s New Afghan Party, was stabbed and beheaded. Noori had earlier resigned from the Afghan Parliament and joined a journalists’ rights organisation, Afghan National Journalists Association, and also set up a journalists’ training institution. It is still unknown if his killing was politically motivated. Meanwhile, the government has not taken any step to end the immunity for those who kill.
The Karzai government itself was intolerant of criticism and harassed towards journalists if they were perceived as embarrassing the government with revelations. There was, however, a third party of tormentors too: the ISAF-NATO forces that often detained journalists they suspected of being linked to the Taliban. If one counts the warlords ensconced in the provinces of Afghanistan, one can say that the factions that did not want the journalists around were the highest in Afghanistan compared to the neighbourhood. Afghanistan’s free media was a kind of flowerpot demonstration of how a country without any tradition of free media can be made to start a ‘media revolution’.

Bangladesh

Although vibrant, the Bangladeshi media remained partisan in a seriously polarised polity. This meant that coverage considered anti-government was taken amiss and its writer was punished by the government while those media outlets close to the government were favoured. Even though the journalists are divided, it is the duty of the government not to persecute those who are critical of it. The current government and any government that may succeed it must recognise that the media has to be saved from persecution and persuaded through fair treatment to abandon its bias. Mahmudur Rahman, editor of Amar Desh – an opposition-affiliated newspaper – was sentenced to six months in jail and a 100,000 Taka fine by the Supreme Court on charges of contempt. Clearly the positive advance made by the Supreme Court in its constitutional activism has been marred by the tendency of the media persons to side with one side of the political divide or the other without regard to the facts.

What must appear blatant to the world is the use of the so-called Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force by the ruling Awami League to intimidate and punish journalists it does not like. The government banned a photo exhibition about extrajudicial executions by the members of RAB, threatening the owner of the gallery where it was being staged. However, to be fair to the Awami League government, it also supported a draft resolution on protection of journalists in situations of armed conflict together with Mexico at the 13th session of the UN Human Rights Council. This step is expected to incline the government in Dhaka to improve its conduct towards the media.

India

Incidents of political retaliation from ruling politicians affected the working of media persons, in some cases causing death and injury to reporters on duty. Incidents proliferated across India where journalists were picked up on allegations of unfair and false coverage. It appeared that the politicians had decided to muzzle the media to prevent the presentation of a true picture of their activities. In Indian administered Kashmir, the state continued to treat the journalists roughly to prevent objective reporting of events.

Because of commercialisation and ‘big money’, some flaws of the media also came to the fore, forcing some senior media persons to voice criticism of their own community. India’s business world used lobbyists to canvass their cases with the government and used certain journalists as go-betweens. Commenting on disclosures about the media itself, columnist Rahul Singh (“Assessing India’s fourth estate”, Dawn 21 Dec 2010) wrote: “Clearly, the credibility and the standing of the Indian media, print and electronic, has plummeted. A recent survey also showed that those the Indian public least respect are politicians and journalists, in that order”.
However, to bring balance to his assessment, Mr Singh added: ‘I think that is being somewhat unfair to the Indian media, particularly the press. With a couple of exceptions, India’s leading editors have been honest and crusading. Indian newspapers have over the years exposed malfeasance and kept whichever government that has been in power on its toes’.
One cannot ignore the sacrifices symbolised by the death of Vijay Pratap Singh, a young Indian Express reporter, after sustaining injuries in a bomb blast at a UP minister’s house. But the death of Dasgupta, editor of the Bengali edition of Maoist mouthpiece, People’s March, has exposed the dark holes in the democratic edifice.  Dasgupta is the first case where a journalist died in police custody after being nabbed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The defenders of democratic norms have called it “state murder” because the state could not fulfil its responsibility to protect him in prison and instead subjected him to torture

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Nepal

Nepal has been politically unstable in the face of the aggressive style of the Maoist Party which uses ‘revolutionary’ methods on journalists reporting fairly on its often violent programme of action. The deadlock over the new constitution dragged on and produced a situation in which the new Prime Minister, Yadav Kumar Nepal, chose to resign, after which the media has become exposed to the violent style used by the Maoists. A six-day strike gave scope to Maoist demonstrations targeting journalists on duty for rough treatment while threatening the owners of the papers they represented. In May, an international press freedom organisation, Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF), registered 10 cases of serious press freedom violations by the Maoists.
    
Two media owners were brutally murdered in one month. They were clearly targeted by the extremists. Jamim Shah, owner of Space Time Network, which also runs Channel Nepal Television, was shot dead in the high security zone close to the French embassy. The other victim was Arun Singhaniya, chairman of Janakpur Today Group that runs Janakpur Today, Nepali Daily, and Radio Today. He was shot at point-blank range on his forehead. The third killing is of the chairman of Radio Tulsipur, Devi Prasad Dhital alias Hemraj, who was shot dead in Dang by an unidentified group. These murders are horrifying because they expose the power such groups have and the inability of law enforcing agencies to catch them.

Pakistan

Considered “the most dangerous country in the world” for journalists, Pakistan continued its decline into a situation where media persons came under attack from state and non-state actors. Twelve journalists and one media worker were killed during the year. Target killing was the favourite method used to remove journalists from a scene that was not to be reported upon. They included Ashiq Ali Mangi, reporter of Mehran TV; Faiz Mohammad Khan Sasoli, correspondent of Independent News of Pakistan; Haji Misri Khan Orakzai, a Hangu-based journalist; Mujeebur Rehman Saddique, correspondent of Daily Pakistan; Abdul Hameed Hayatan of Royal TV, and Muhammad Khan Sasoli, the president of Khuzdar press club. All were victims of terrorists and banned jihadi outfits.

The suicide bombing in Kohat and Quetta took the lives of Arif Malik, cameraman, and Azmat Ali Bangash, reporter of Samaa TV. Ijaz-ul-Haq, a satellite technician, was shot dead when a bullet hit him during an armed attack on an Ahmadi place of worship. Ejaz Ahmed Raisani, news cameraman of Samaa TV along with Mohammad Sarwar, media crew driver of Aaj TV were killed while covering the Al Quds rally of Shias in Quetta. Abdul Wahab of Express TV and Pervez Khan of Waqt TV died when they were on duty covering a peace jirga (tribal tribunal) in Mohmand Agency in FATA.

The media worked effectively to reveal scandals emanating from the various branches of the government, but there was criticism of the bias of a section of the media to the incumbent government of the PPP. Although the security agencies were reported to have used intimidation and there were instances of ‘beating by unknown persons’, the PPP government used restraint and did not generally employ its full bureaucratic clout to silence the media. Print journalism demonstrated a critique from private individuals about some excesses committed in TV discussions.

SRI LANKA:

The Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa has regrettably taken a nosedive when it comes to its relations with the national media. Some of this is owed to the rise of Sinhala nationalism after the defeat of the terrorists at the hands of the Sri Lankan army. The presidential election was marred by violence, some of whose brunt had to be borne by the Sri Lankan media. Persecution of media persons followed reports of widespread allegations of irregularities during polls in addition to the misuse of the state-owned media.

Despite the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide in the country which the government tended to exploit, Sinhala journalists showed moral courage by pointing out the erratic conduct of the government. Chandana Sirimalwatte, editor of the Sinhala language weekly ‘Lanka’, was put in detention for weeks for his writings. Journalists have been abducted frequently in order to muzzle the media that is endeavouring to report fairly on a fast deteriorating political situation. One of them is Prageeth Eknaligoda, a cartoonist, who went missing prior to the elections. Eknaligoda wrote a comparative analysis of the two presidential candidates for the Lanka eNews website despite various threats. The abduction of journalists is a recurring problem in Sri Lanka and various power centres hostile to the media find it an easy method of weakening or silencing such voices. The post-election violence and harassment of journalists came as a big disappointment for those who stood firm in defence of democracy, free media and human rights.