On Sunday, the 35-year-old Pakistani journalist Shahid Zehri was killed by an explosion in the industrial city of Hub. Assailants attached a bomb to his car and detonated it by remote control. The Baluch Liberation Army, a banned separatist group, claimed responsibility.
Just three days before Zehri’s killing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee sent a signal of support for independent journalism by awarding its Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia.
The killing of a Pakistani journalist just days after the Nobel announcement vividly illustrates the growing threats to media freedom around the world. We’re accustomed to hearing about crackdowns on the press in autocracies such as Russia. But the Philippines is at least ostensibly a democracy — the same as Pakistan.
Last year, the International Federation of Journalists published a white paper that identified the five most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Pakistan and India were included in the list, along with Iraq, Mexico and the Philippines. Take note: All five of these countries claim to be democracies. They all have regular elections, they all have elected leaders, and they all claim to have democratic institutions. But their treatment of journalists is telling a starkly different story.
According to UNESCO, almost 1,500 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1993. In the past decade, more than 50 have been killed in Pakistan and about 40 in India. Nine out of 10 killings of journalists typically remain unsolved.
The United Nations and its affiliated bodies have tried to highlight the issue of impunity, which not only poses a threat to media freedom but also weakens the constitutional foundations of democracies. The United Nations announced a plan of action for the safety of journalists in 2012. Yet there have been few positive results.
I have personally known, and worked with, many martyrs of the media. I can’t forget my last conversation with Pakistani journalist Hayatullah Khan, who was killed in North Waziristan in 2006. He told me that the local administration was not happy with his reporting. They warned him to abandon his work or leave the area. He asked me what he should do. I advised him to stay and keep working. A few days later he was killed.
I and other Pakistani journalists demanded that a judicial commission investigate his killing. A commission was duly set up, and his brave wife decided to use her testimony to expose the killers of her husband. That was her biggest mistake: Soon after that she, too, was killed by a bomb. Finally, plagued by guilt, I had to tell Khan’s younger brother to leave the area with the rest of the family. The family was denied justice.
In 2018, Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari told me about the threats he was receiving in India. A few days later, he was assassinated in Srinagar. I wrote a piece in 2017 on the killing of an Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, whom I never met personally, though we interacted via social media. Many readers in Pakistan asked why I was so sad about the death of an Indian journalist. I told them that perhaps I wanted her friends and family to know that I understand the pain of bullet wounds because I still carry two bullets in my body from a 2014 attempt on my life.
We need to raise our voices for one another because threats to media freedom are spreading all over the world. The most disturbing aspect is the denial of justice. I can say only that democracies such as Pakistan and India have become very dangerous for media freedom because the rule of law is absent. In South Asia in particular, dissent has been facing an organized war from state and nonstate actors for many years.
Some years ago, a brave Sri Lankan journalist named Lasantha Wickrematunge predicted his assassination in his last editorial. He was a critic of then-Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (who is now prime minister). One day Wickrematunge was called in by the president and threatened that he would be killed if he continued to write. That brave journalist refused to listen.
There were a few lines in Wickrematunge’s final editorial that remain relevant for all of us. He referenced the famous words of the German priest and Nazi concentration camp victim Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Wickrematunge was not fighting for himself. He was fighting for all journalists. He was fighting for democratic values. His family is still crying out for justice. I can mention many other examples — one need only recall Jamal Khashoggi. The vast majority of the journalists killed in the line of duty have been silenced with no accountability for their killers.
We should remember Wickrematunge’s words. They are already coming for the journalists. If someone doesn’t take action, there will be no one left to speak out for the rest of us.
Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.