Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Outside image
People attend the funeral prayer of murdered senior Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday, October 27, 2022. Sharif was shot and killed by Nairobi police. Pakistan's intelligence chief and the military spokesman paid tributes to him because of his journalistic work and demanded a probe into his killing [Anjum Naveed/AP]

Why is life so dangerous for Pakistani journalists?

Pakistani journalists face huge danger in the course of carrying out their work. Why is so little being done to address this?


Mourners gathered at Islamabad airport. It was a period of national grief, not only in Pakistan, but also for those living in the diaspora - many glued to their television screens. The body of the popular investigative journalist, Arshad Sharif, had returned to Pakistan from Kenya. 

Like many members of the Pakistani diaspora, connected to and affected by the flashing news of their ancestral homeland, I, too, could only murmur helplessly: "It's not possible. I cannot believe it." 

Sharif, 49, shot dead by police in the capital, Nairobi, on October 23, 2022, was a fearless force with a gentle smile - as observed from my television screen. He was the type you wouldn't expect to have a big ego and who did have the kind of professionalism you wouldn't think deserves to be snuffed out. 

His thorough research, which he presented with great fairness and persistence, was always astounding. That only comes from knowing very key sources. He was like an institution, certainly a shining example of good investigative journalism. 

Senior Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif during an episode of his talk show in Islamabad, Pakistan, on December 15, 2016. Pakistani investigators claim that his killing in Kenya was a “planned assassination", according to a report released Wednesday, December 7, 2022 [AP Photo]

However, it was common for Sharif’s reporting to draw outrage - an indication that he was doing impactful work - from the subjects he exposed: unfavourable views of Pakistan's powerful army, corruption and the crimes of politicians. 

In his final months, Sharif received death threats and left the country. Critical journalists in Pakistan often have no option but to depart, and it is often assumed that those who choose exile are in a “safe” haven. But sometimes, they end up in unprotected environments. 

Sharif's killing in Kenya, according to the Pakistani government, was the culmination of a plot hatched within Pakistan - a terrifying reminder of the inherent dangers of critical Pakistani journalism - there is no escape.

Journalists hold a demonstration to condemn the killing of senior Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif by Kenyan police, in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, October 24, 2022. Sharif had been in hiding abroad after leaving Pakistan to avoid arrest on charges of criticizing his country's powerful military [Ikram Suri/AP]

Sharif was far from the first Pakistani journalist to try to take cover overseas. Taha Siddiqui, an award-winning investigative journalist and an outspoken opponent of Pakistan's powerful military establishment, fled to France in 2018. "But now, even in exile, I feel unsafe," he wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.

"The US intelligence officials told me they believe that, after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, repressive regimes such as the one in Pakistan have been emboldened to silence critics, not only at home but also abroad.

"I was further advised to stay away from Pakistani embassies around the world and also Pakistan-friendly countries."

Whether escaping harsh government bans or waves of anti-press violence, Pakistani journalists remain a target even in exile - new home, new challenges. 

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, centre, was forced into exile after an attempted kidnapping. Here, he speaks to reporters in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2018 before he fled to France [Anjum Naveed/AP]


A rising death toll

Attacks on journalists in Pakistan are nothing new. In 2009, for example, journalists rallied in Lahore after a suicide bomber detonated exposives outside the Peshawar Press Club in northwestern Pakistan, killing three people and wounding 17. Little has changed in terms of the dangers journalists face since then.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released its White Paper on Global Journalism in 2020, ranking Pakistan as the fifth worst country for journalists, with at least 138 journalists murdered since 1990 and 42 killed in the last four years. More recently, on the list of the world's deadliest places to be a journalist by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), published in 2022, Pakistan falls between the fragile Somalia and troubled Myanmar. 

In addition to the horrific death toll, there are at least 86 incidences of serious attacks and injuries against journalists, according to the Pakistan Freedom Network.

A UNESCO report, titled Observatory of Killed Journalists, indicates that six journalists were killed in Pakistan last year. Five of these are known to have been shot, while one died in an accident.

Pakistani journalists rally to condemn a suicide attack on the Peshawar Press Club, holding a banner that reads "Suicide attack on Peshawar Press Club is an attack on free journalism", on Tuesday, December 22, 2009 in Lahore [KM Chaudary/AP)

The reasons for such assassinations are varied: powerful people become angered by critical coverage, corrupt public officials seek to suppress whistleblowers, reporters stray into dangerous environments, and journalists being injured or killed in random acts of violence and even accidents caused by dangerous situations.

Hasnain Shah, a senior crime reporter for the private news channel, Capital TV, was shot dead in broad daylight on January 24, 2022 by two masked gunmen on a motorcycle, outside the Lahore press club. 

Just one week after the killing of Arshad Sharif, a female reporter, Sadaf Naeem, was tragically crushed to death under a campaign lorry vehicle, while covering former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s protest in Kamoke, on October 30, 2022. This case illustrates the inadequate protection, training, and equipment provided to journalists covering political gatherings in Pakistan, raising concerns about low health and safety standards in the workplace. It also emphasises the much-needed discussion between the government and news organisations to ensure the safety of media professionals reporting in the field.

The deaths of Sharif, Shah, and Naeem are just the latest in a string of journalist deaths in Pakistan that have largely gone unsolved. 

People attend the funeral of Sadaf Naeem, 36, a television journalist, in Lahore, Pakistan on Monday, October 31, 2022. Naeem was crushed to death while covering a political march led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, a senior police officer said [KM Chaudary/AP]


Little political will to change

In 2021, the Senate of Pakistan passed the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill, aiming to safeguard the rights and security of journalists in Pakistan. The bill requires media companies to provide safety training to their staff one month into their employment and prior to engaging in reporting or any journalistic work in any location.

Moreover, it outlines the types of training required for journalists who work in dangerous environments, including health and environmental hazards training (HEHT).

However, while this requirement has been in existence for two years, journalists and media workers continue to face violent attacks, while the bill, which is not yet in full effect, fails to deliver on its promise. 

In this March 14, 2017, file, photo, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir sits in his office in Islamabad, Pakistan. A Pakistani television station on Monday, May 31, 2021, took Mir off air, removing him as host of a popular talk show after he criticised the country’s powerful military [Anjum Naveed/AP]

There is also an absence of political will from key party members to put an end to these deadly actions against journalists. Rather, they seek to control and influence the news.

That hasn't stopped the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan and its co-founder, Umar Cheema, from exposing the tax records of lawmakers and ministers. He has been a major force in investigative journalism for many years, despite being kidnapped and cruelly tortured in 2010. Amid the lethal threats and hostile circumstances is the remarkable bravery of those who continue to report.

When Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan's most prominent journalists, was shot six times on April 19, 2014, in one of the most horrific attacks against a journalist the country has seen in recent decades, he refused to back down.  

"If the attacks on journalists don’t stop, we won’t remain silent," he wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. 

"If we all speak loudly and without fear, I’m certain that we will be heard. This is how our forefathers resisted British rule, and it’s how we’ll continue to resist the colonial mind-set that seeks to silence us today," Mir further added. 

Senior journalist for the Geo News television station Hamid Mir (left) watches as police officers show a bomb found under his car to Interior Minister Rehman Malik (centre) in Islamabad on November 26, 2012 [Sohail Shahzad/Reuters]

Mir, a television anchor on Geo News, was wounded but survived when he was shot near Karachi airport by unidentified gunmen who followed him before opening fire. His relatives blamed Pakistan's intelligence agencies for the attack. Previously, in November 2012, a bomb was found under Mir's parked car, following his coverage of Malala Yousafzai's assassination attempt. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. 

More recently, in 2021, Mir was taken off air from the Geo TV talk show "Capital Talk," which he had hosted for two decades, after making anti-military remarks at a protest rally outside Islamabad's National Press Club. He had also referred to the assault on another journalist, Asad Ali Toor, who was attacked at his home by unidentified men after critical reporting on the country's leadership.

There is no denying that freedom of expression exists in Pakistan. However, journalists making use of it have discovered that it frequently results in injury and even death.

Besides these dangers, young adults - training and networking among Pakistani journalists and media professionals - exist. The International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), has established the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) in Karachi, Pakistan. It aspires to equip students for key positions in the age of digital media by offering Pakistan's first journalism degree-granting course and its first Master of Science in Journalism programme.

Pakistani journalists chant slogans during a protest, called by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist (PFUJ), against the attack on television anchorperson Hamid Mir, outside the press club in Islamabad on April 21, 2014. Unknown gunmen on motorcycles opened fire and injured Mir in Karachi a few days previously [Mian Khursheed/Reuters] 


Time to take action

While the passage of the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals bill is the first step towards protecting the lives of Pakistani journalists, policymakers must adopt and regularly follow well-informed, integrated, and coordinated strategies.

When The New York Times dispatches a journalist abroad, there's a security team watching out.  Meanwhile, Guardian journalists are given a hostile environment course that covers first aid and basic guidelines before they travel out to dangerous locations. They also conduct frequent reviews of safety procedures.

Although there is much to fight for - and plenty to celebrate when it comes to courage and determination - but what is required right now is to that the bill be vigorously implemented and supported by all: journalists, the government, media outlets and Pakistani society as a whole. It is time to take action.


More Articles

Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023
How to use data to report on earthquakes

Sifting through data sounds clinical, but journalists can use it to seek out the human element when reporting on natural disasters such as earthquakes

Arwa Kooli Published on: 19 Sep, 2023
‘I had no idea how to report on this’ - local journalists tackling climate change stories

Local journalists are key to informing the public about the devastating dangers of climate change but, in India, a lack of knowledge, training and access to expert sources is holding them back

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 13 Sep, 2023
Ethical reporting - how to cover suicide responsibly

Sensationalist reporting of suicide cases has been shown to cause a rise in the numbers of people taking their own lives in affected communities. Journalists must take great care

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 7 Sep, 2023
‘Don’t let someone else narrate your stories for you’ - travel journalists in the global south

THE LONG READ: Life as a travel journalist isn’t just for privileged Westerners ‘discovering’ quaint parts of south-east Asia and Africa

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 1 Sep, 2023
‘People need to stop blindly obeying the law’ - journalists fighting on the fringes in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Imprisoned, exiled and forced to base themselves overseas, independent journalists in Vietnam are punished harshly if they publish the ‘wrong’ sort of content. Some, such as Luật Khoa tạp chí, are fighting back

Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 25 Aug, 2023
Ethics and safety in OSINT - can you believe what you see?

OSINT is increasingly important for journalists in a digital world. We take a look at ethics, safety on the internet and how to spot a ‘deepfake’

Sara Creta Published on: 15 Aug, 2023
‘Other journalists jeer at us’ – life for mobile journalists in Cameroon

Journalists in Cameroon are using their phones in innovative ways to report the news for many different types of media, but major news organisations have still not caught up

Akem Nkwain Published on: 1 Aug, 2023
‘Life of journalists is cheap’ - how the Philippines became deadly for reporters

Forging ahead with a career in journalism is fraught with difficulty in the Philippines - and many are walking away. What went so wrong?

Ana P Santos Published on: 19 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Could AI replace humans in journalism?

Recent advances in AI are mind-blowing. But good journalism requires certain skills which, for now at least, only humans can master

Mei Shigenobu
Mei Shigenobu Published on: 17 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Comparing coverage of the Titanic submersible and migrant boat disasters

Two disasters costing human lives have occurred at sea in the past two weeks, but the media coverage of each was markedly different. How and why?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 28 Jun, 2023
The silencing of Sudan's journalists - again

THE LONG READ: Detained, beaten and their cameras smashed - Sudan’s journalists are enduring a renewed crackdown on the media

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 7 Jun, 2023
'Rebuilt memory by memory' - recreating a Palestinian village 75 years after the Nakba

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: How it took the collective memories of several generations, painstaking interviews and a determined search through tall grass and prickly plants to recreate a destroyed community

Amandas Ong Published on: 4 Jun, 2023
Suffering in silence - the Kashmiri journalists facing a mental health crisis

THE LONG READ: Al Jazeera Journalism Review has interviewed more than 20 journalists in India-controlled Kashmir who are facing exhausting, insurmountable obstacles to doing their jobs safely every single day

Adil Akhoon
Adil Amin Akhoon, Khalid Bashir Gura Published on: 29 May, 2023
How to analyse satellite imagery

When you have a story, but still need to tie up loose ends to answer where or when a particular event occurred, satellite imagery can point you in the right direction

Sara Creta Published on: 25 May, 2023
OSINT: Tracking ships, planes and weapons

Tracking ships and planes is an increasingly valuable technique in open-source investigations carried out by journalists. In part 4 of our special series, we examine how it works

Sara Creta Published on: 18 May, 2023
How social media bans have crippled journalism in India’s Punjab

The Indian government has ordered social media platforms to block hundreds of accounts of journalists and activists

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 16 May, 2023
Tear gas and internet blackouts - reporting on protests in Pakistan

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, violence has erupted across Pakistan. For journalists, it is like reporting from the centre of a storm

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 May, 2023
Remembering Shireen; my colleague and a 'role model for professionalism'

On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera's Senior Correspondent in Palestine, her colleague commemorates the compassion, integrity and professionalism which made her the extraordinary journalist and human being that she was

Walid Omary Published on: 10 May, 2023
Planning and carrying out an open-source investigation

Part three of our special series of articles on using OSINT in journalism. This time, follow our four steps to completing an open-source investigation

Sara Creta Published on: 9 May, 2023
What is an open-source investigation?

In the second part of our special series on using open-source intelligence in journalism, we look at what constitutes and open-source investigation

Sara Creta Published on: 4 May, 2023
How misinformation in the media wreaked havoc on an Indian village

When journalists - and social media ‘influencers’ claiming to be journalists - aimed for sensationalism and did not check their facts about the outbreak of the HIV virus in an Indian village, the results were devastating

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 1 May, 2023
Using open-source intelligence in journalism

Where once journalists relied on sources for information - also known as ‘human intelligence’ (HUMINT) - they now increasingly rely on ‘open-source’ intelligence (OSINT) gathered from the internet, satellite imagery, corporate databases and much, much more

Phil Rees Published on: 12 Apr, 2023
Investigating the assassination of my own father

As a journalist, reporting on the murder of my father meant answering questions about my own position as an objective observer

Diana Lopez
Diana Lopez Zuleta Published on: 3 Apr, 2023