“One never knows whether the Taliban is gunning for you or whether the agencies are gunning for you ... and sometimes you don’t know because one is operating at the behest of the other.”
Najam Sethi, Pakistani journalist. CPJ, Roots of Impunity
Attacked by state agents and the military on one side, and militant and extremist groups on the other, the situation for human rights defenders in Pakistan is one of the most dangerous in the world. A weak civilian government has handed over much power to the military, which is absolved from scrutiny. Investigations into murders and disappearances have led nowhere. Under this climate, impunity reigns.
President Mamnoon Hussain, who took office in 2013, holds a largely ceremonial role. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is serving his third term as prime minister, last elected in May 2013 when his Muslim League Party won parliamentary elections by 32.7% of the popular vote. The election was largely fair, although with some violent incidents attributed to extremists.
The Commonwealth, Organisation of Islamic Conference, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, United Nations
IFEX members working in the country:
Press Freedom Ranking:
Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2016: 147 out of 179 countries
A panoply of abuse - killings, abductions, online surveillance and blasphemy laws
Pakistan faces significant security challenges alongside persistent conflicts on its border areas, with frequent violent attacks on civilians by extremist groups. The December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar where 149 people were killed, most of them children, led to the government's ceding of significant constitutional and decision making powers to the military under a national action plan to end terrorism , specifically in the areas of national security and human rights. In 2015 alone, over 9,400 people had been arrested for terrorism offenses, among them journalists. Suicide bombings and other deadly attacks by members of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups affected nearly all of Pakistan.
The panoply of abuses suffered by the media in Pakistan is detailed by the Pakistan Press Foundation in its report on press freedom in 2015. During the year, two media personnel were killed in separate instances, with the Taliban claiming responsibility for one of the deaths. Hand grenades, explosives and gunfire injured six media workers in a spate of attacks on television and newspaper offices in November and December that year, attributed to extremist groups. Abductions are a particular peril faced by reporters in conflict and tribal areas, thought to be under-reported as families fear publicity could worsen the situation. Further injustices against the media that year included dubious charges under anti-terror laws against 11 journalists, believed to be in retaliation for their reporting on a controversial opposition figure, and rough police treatment of reporters covering protests and political meetings.
According to Front Line Defenders, Pakistan is also a very dangerous environment for human rights defenders and activists working in all areas of rights protection. It reported that in nine months between January and September 2016, two were murdered: one a transgender rights activist, the other a journalist campaigning for religious minorities. Attacks, disappearances, threats and harassment were reported against other transgender activists, people working for labour, religious and minority rights, and advocates tackling violence against women. It would appear that there are few, if any, areas where human rights defenders can practice without fear.
To add to the pressure, August 2016 saw the passing into law of the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill that criminalises a broad spectrum of speech, instituting harsh prison sentences and deepening surveillance. One troubling clause provides up to three years in prison for publishing information 'likely to harm or intimidate the reputation or privacy' of a person, severely curtailing investigation into alleged abuses by government officers. The Pakistan digital rights organisation, Bytes For All, calls the law open to misuse for 'political/ideological reasons', giving the authorities 'absolute control over the flow of information'. The passing of the legislation was carried out with no transparency and little if any public scrutiny or liaison with civil society or the private sector.
Pakistan also has harsh blasphemy laws that can draw down the death penalty. In 2013, 34 new charges of blasphemy were registered, with 17 people awaiting execution, and another 20 serving life imprisonment. A December 2015 report by the Digital Rights Network Pakistan points out that the law applies to written as well as 'visible representations, imputations, innuendo or insinuations' and extends to online activity, 'leaving a lot of power to listeners or unrelated third parties to allege blasphemy'. It reports that harsher blasphemy legislation introduced in 1987 led to a rise in vigilante violence particularly against religious minorities, and which the government showed little inclination to address.
Impunity – a catalogue of obfuscation and inaction
In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published its report, Roots of Impunity, which cited Pakistan as the fourth deadliest nation in the world for the press, with at least 23 targeted killings of journalists since 2003. Many more became victims of suicide bombings and other conflict related violence. Since the report was published, CPJ has recorded seven more killings, five of them clearly targeted.
Convictions for the murders of media workers and human rights defenders are rare. Families and supporters of the killed and disappeared live under a pall of impunity as they attempt to find justice. A small sampling of cases languishing in impunity includes:
• Lawyer and regional coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Rashid Rehman was shot dead in his office in May 2014. He had been defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy.
• Shan Dahar, bureau chief of Abb Takk Television, who died after being shot in January 2014. His alleged killers are being tried in absentia having fled the country. They are charged with accidental shooting despite evidence that he was targeted.
• In August 2015, reporter Zeenat Shahzadi was abducted in Lahore. She had been investigating another kidnapping. The first female journalist to be forcibly disappeared, she is among 86 disappearances registered with the non-governmental Human Rights Commission on Pakistan (not to be confused with the National Commission for Human Rights). A year after her abduction, no official investigation had been initiated.
Human rights mechanisms ‘toothless’
The establishment of Pakistan's National Commission for Human Rights in 2015 was welcomed by local rights groups but its remit is severely limited, leading the International Commission of Jurists to describe it as 'toothless at birth'. The Commission cannot inquire into 'the act or practice of the intelligence agencies', and when it comes to abuses of the armed forces, it can only request a report from the government and make recommendations. The creation of this mechanism has been accompanied by shrinking space for civil society investigation. In October 2015, new rules for international NGOs operating in Pakistan were put in place, requiring that they register and obtain prior permission for any activity in the country. Registration can be cancelled for 'involvement in any activity inconsistent with Pakistan's national interests, or contrary to Government policy'.
Pakistan is one of the focus countries for UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of impunity. While the plan has helped to create dialogue between media stakeholders and the government and advance new legislation for the protection of journalists, institutional weakness and capacity issues have slowed implementation and prevented a significant improvement in levels of safety and prosecutions.
Pakistan has signed or ratified most key United Nations conventions protecting human rights, but tellingly, not the Convention on the Protection of all Persons From Enforced Disappearance. Although a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, it has not signed its optional protocol that would allow UN visits to detention centres. Frontline Defenders also reports that the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders' requests to visit the country in 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2010 have not been answered.
There is an urgent need for effective mechanisms to enable full and open investigation into human rights abuses by the military and government agencies, and for robust judicial procedures to ensure apprehension and conviction of those who kill their opponents. Without these measures, state agents, militias and extremists will continue to threaten, attack and even murder with impunity.
More Resources & Information
Shan Dahar: A family's fight for justiceAsia & Pacific Pakistan Press Foundation 18 June 2016
On 1 January 2014, Pakistani journalist Shan Dahar was shot by armed men and taken to a local hospital where he remained unattended until he succumbed to his injuries. More than two years later, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
2016 Report on Impunity for Crimes against Journalists in Pakistan: Justice Delayed and Justice DeniedAsia & Pacific Pakistan Press Foundation 1 November 2016
In this report, the Pakistan Press Foundation finds a "near absolute level of impunity" in Pakistan due to a lack of interest by the federal and provincial governments as well as employers in pursuing legal cases of violence against journalists.