Category Archives: Guest Column

A year ago, I was almost killed

The writer is affiliated with the Express group and is an editor at the The Friday Times. Currently, he is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, USA. The views expressed here are his own

The writer is affiliated with the Express group and is an editor at the The Friday Times. Currently, he is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, USA. The views expressed here are his own

A year ago, I suffered the fate of thousands of Pakistanis who have been attacked, maimed and terrorised by violent extremism. I was lucky to have physically survived but my driver Mustafa was not. An innocent human life lost but at the end of the day, he made for a mere digit. This is the brutal reality of a country where a mighty state appears unable to protect its citizens.

I was once a civil servant and a mandarin in Pakistan’s powerful administrative service. I ventured into international development and worked for the Asian Development Bank. I had secure careers lined up with attractive promotions and stable retirement plans. I gave up these comfortable options and opted for journalism and public engagement, in the naive hope that public narratives could be changed. I chose a path that would allow me freedom of expression to wade in the murky waters of what is known as ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.

I cannot complain much as within a few years I had carved my space and engaged with old and new media, happily discovering that there were thousands of other likeminded men and women of my country who agreed that religious extremism and xenophobia masked as patriotism needed to be challenged. Above all, human rights — especially the right to live and worship freely — mattered. But I sensed the limits and the dangers. And on March 28 last year, I did pay a price. Unknown men, later identified by the police as operatives of a Taliban affiliate, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), tried to kill me. A rather drastic punishment for my views and what I stood for.

There has been a trial of sorts underway. A few men are in jail but the ‘mastermind’ is at large. If the police story and confessions — to be tested in a court of law — are correct, then all the accused, including the mastermind, report to the chief of the LeJ, who has been given bail in all cases. The gentleman in question had confessed to killing people in his interviews. All of this is on public record.

Before the attack, I was warned and threatened, especially on the social media. Unknown accounts told me that I would have to pay a price with my blood. I was called an apostate, an infidel for commenting on the attacks on non-Muslims and Shias. My views on normalising ties with India were taken by some as a sign of being unpatriotic, for perennial hostility with the ‘Hindu’ neighbour is the ultimate marker of our nationhood. This is also a cynical ploy, for what could be more telling than Ms Fatima Jinnah, celebrated as the mother of the nation, also being accused of being an Indian agent when she chose to show dissent in the 1965 elections.

Concurrently, friends and family also insisted that I should not talk about ‘sensitive’ issues. For, if I said don’t kill Shias, then I could be mistaken for being a Shia Muslim. I had to clarify in a television show that I was a Sunni. I find it ludicrous that we have to render such explanations (I saw others doing it as well on television). When I protested and questioned the state’s institutionalised persecution of Ahmadis, I was warned that I could be thought of as being an Ahmadi! Questioning the treatment meted out to marginalised sections of the population is enough for extremists to label you an apostate in the Islamic Republic. I remember that a caller in one of my TV shows attacked me for protesting against the ghastly 2013 attack on a Peshawar church and said that Muslims were also being killed by the ‘Christian’ West!

Is there no freedom in Pakistan to say that the colonial blasphemy law is being misused? Should we let mobs burn pregnant Christian women and Ahmadi families, and attack Christian settlements and churches because there is a mere accusation of blasphemy?

What sort of media reporting and commentary can take place if you can’t raise such issues on the most influential medium, i.e., TV? I do remember the unofficial advisories and the counsel by peers and producers on what not to say on TV. I caved in sometimes and for the times I did not, I guess, was taught a lesson.

I have been away from the country of my birth and my beloved city of Lahore for 11 months. I have lived abroad but never for so long. This has been a forced separation, mainly driven by the fact that those who tried to kill me can easily try it again. There have been threats sent my way directly and indirectly and the extremists have even threatened my murdered driver’s family not to show up in court.

I never knew that in my quest for freedom I would face this dilemma: should I risk my life or let anyone else get hurt? I am neither a suicide bomber nor eager to be ‘martyred’. We have enough martyrs in Pakistan. I certainly don’t want to travel around in bullet-bomb-proof cars (unaffordable to begin with). There are a few friends and foes who accuse me of ‘running away’. This is part of the larger desensitisation and intellectual confusion that permeates Pakistan. I am quite happy to take that opprobrium than face bullets. The bravery of those who question my decision can only be tested if they (God forbid) had to face the situation I am in.

Freedom of expression is invaluable and non-negotiable. I have done enough of self-censorship in my ruptured media career. But I have no plans to give up. I also have no regrets for taking positions. I salute all the hard-working journalists and media workers who perform their duties in difficult situations, especially in Balochistan, Fata and other conflict zones. I will rejoin them one day. Pakistan is part of my identity and will always remain so. For now, I need to feel secure. The right to life, after all, is inviolable.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2015.

Guest Column is a new section on my blog. I will be sharing all those articles which I endorse and which influence or share my opinion. 


Frank Denton: Intolerance, death and the journalism of hope


LAHORE, PAKISTAN | Last Sunday, while you were luxuriating in the security and freedom we Americans take for granted — reading our Sunshine Week stories and mulling over political candidates — a group of Pakistani journalists meeting here faced a grimmer subject.

It was the two “blasts,” as they call them here — terrorist bomb attacks they have come to take for granted, even these that killed 16 people in Christian churches in Lahore that day. Looking around the table at the 22 senior editors’ faces, I saw very little emotional reaction, no surprise or outrage. Just acceptance, resignation.

I was there, with another American editor, at the request of the International Center for Journalists in Washington to conduct a three-day seminar to help Pakistani newspaper and website editors learn modern journalism techniques – strategic coverage planning, newsroom organization and process, innovation and values and ethics.

The United States has a long but tortured friendship with Pakistan. We essentially are allies, having graced that South Asian nation with billions of dollars in aid since its founding in 1948. For its part, Pakistan has been somewhat, but not always, helpful in our war on terror, while not very effective in its own internal struggle against terrorism. And there was that matter of overlooking the presence of Osama bin Laden hiding in the country.

As much as we can criticize Pakistan’s falling short of wholehearted support for our anti-terror efforts, I was struck from our first moments in the country by the high tension that pervades this city and the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. As Americans, we were not allowed to use the main highway out of the airport, which traverses a military sector, and instead had to maneuver rutted back streets.

Then we had a security briefing at the U.S. Consulate, where Public Affairs Officer Rachael Chen told us: “Our travel warning for Pakistan is we don’t want you to come here.”

But there we were, so she advised us to avoid crowded places and routines and be “unpredictable” in moving around the city, in case evil eyes were watching. “Even variances of 15 minutes are helpful.”

American consulate workers live within the compound, and Chen said that, anytime they venture out, they are required to have drivers and “fully armored vehicles.”

The consulate has four visible layers of security, and our hotel had three, including a vehicle inspection and a bomb-sniffing dog just to get into the parking lot.

But Pakistani journalists, of course, have to do their jobs out in the open. “Journalists have been targeted,” Chen told us. “It’s a dangerous place for journalists.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists says Pakistan is the ninth deadliest country in the world for journalism, with 56 journalists killed on the job since 1992 and another 19 killed possibly because of their work. Last year, the committee said, “Three journalists were killed for their work, a decline from previous years. Yet violence against journalists continued: In April, Geo News senior anchor Hamid Mir was shot six times as he was leaving Karachi’s main airport, but survived. In March, gunmen shot at the car of TV anchor Raza Rumi, who escaped serious injury. His driver was killed.”

Still the 22 editors, from Pakistan’s major cities, came to the University of Punjab for the seminar led by Karen Bordeleau, executive editor of The Providence Journal, and me. They were eager to learn as there is very little journalism training in Pakistan, and media practices are pretty basic.

While the Times-Union and most other U.S. newspapers are fully converged, that is, our journalists work nimbly across print and digital platforms, Pakistani news operations still have separate staffs. “We are where you were 10 years ago,” Adnan Adil, the local consultant for the center, said.

As I have seen in other struggling democracies, such as Indonesia and Myanmar, civil institutions like law and journalism lack the foundations, structures and processes on which Americans rely — professional schools, codes of ethics and practice, organizational support and career progressions that allow junior practitioners to learn and develop into journeymen, then into senior leaders like judges and editors.

When Bordeleau asked the editors’ understanding of professional ethics, the first answer was not about independence or impartiality but rather “punctuality” of employees, as a measure of honesty.

While we have our First Amendment and Sunshine statutes, the law does not protect journalism in Pakistan. “We have laws upon laws, but they are not meant to guarantee freedom of expression,” a local media lawyer said at the seminar. “The motive behind them was to curb, to stop, to censor voices critical to the regime.” They were imposed by previous rulers and have never been passed by the Parliament. They are rarely enforced but always looming overhead.

A province can suspend a newspaper for publishing a story “prejudicial to the maintenance of public order,” and the Pakistan Supreme Court has warned that “The press must take care and caution” to maintain public order, national security, the glory of Pakistan and respect of Islam. And of course, journalists are subject to general laws like those that prohibit “blasphemy.”

“Your freedom is restricted by all these things,” the lawyer said.

But freedom of the press is restricted even more by fear of terrorist attack. In discussing whether a newspaper could criticize a judge who had been intimidated into dismissing a case against an accused terrorist, a seminar participant said, “We are not afraid of the judge; we are afraid of that bullet that might come.”

One editor told the story of terrorists threatening a newspaper in Sindh province against publishing an editorial, so all the newspapers in the area agreed to publish the editorial to dilute the threat.

The editors in our seminar reacted to this environment as blithely as the frequent power outages.

But Pakistani journalism also constrains itself. The newspapers and websites pretty much report only on government, politics, crime and terrorism.

Why only those subjects? “All people talk about here is politics,” an editor said. I explained research showing that people tend to talk about what they see in the media, so the causation is mutually reinforcing. I offered an alternative and broader framework of diverse local-news topics based on people’s ties to their communities.

Bordeleau asked what are the most important social issues in Lahore, and we expected to hear health and education, since there is dreadful poverty and the public schools barely function, with many not having even running water or restrooms.

But from editor after editor, what we heard was “intolerance” and “religious intolerance.” They didn’t mean discrimination or hate speech, the kinds of things that we worry about; they meant violence and death.

And then on Sunday the blasts happened.

Bordeleau and I had been planning an afternoon strategic planning session on journalism about education, but we switched subjects to the intolerance that led that day to mass murder of 16 people.

As the editors talked about how they were covering the story, it was all about the blasts themselves and the possible political and military repercussions.

I had presented my “journalism of hope” philosophy, which emphasizes solutions and not just problems, so I asked them to think about what sort of longer-term journalism they could do to affect the intolerance in the society.

They began talking about examples they had seen in their communities of Muslims and Christians sharing community and working together and of Sunnis and *****es sharing prayers in their mosques — stories they had not seen as journalism and so had not reported.

I suggested they crowd-source for more examples and create a regular feature called something like Living Together. For the first newspaper or website to publish such a feature, I promised a gift from America.

At the end of the seminar, we asked each editor to talk about what he or she had learned. A number mentioned the journalism of hope.

When it came to me, I said I had learned — once again — how lucky I am to live and do journalism in a free and safe country. And I told them how much I admired and respected them for doing journalism in an oppressed and dangerous country.

Note: The article originally appeared in The Florida Times – Union ( Guest Column is a new section on my blog. I will be sharing all those articles which I endorse and which influence or share my opinion.