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Published September 12, Islamabad The near-fatal attack on investigative journalist Ahmad Noorani last October stood out for one reason: The journalist, who covers sensitive political issues that often involve the military, was saved only through the intervention of passersby. Nearly a year later, no arrests, just silence and an unmistakable message that those who report critically on sensitive subjects, including the military, the courts, or religion, should tread carefully.
The deterioration in the climate for press freedom in Pakistan accompanied a reduction in murders and attacks against the media. Journalists and press freedom advocates say the two trends are linked, with measures the military took to stomp out terrorism directly resulting in pressure on the media.
Privately, senior editors and journalists say that conditions for the free press are as bad as when the country was under military dictatorshipand journalists were flogged and newspapers forced to close. When CPJ traveled to Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, and Okara earlier this year, journalists, including freelancers and those from established media companies, painted a picture of a media under siege.
Many traced the changes to two events in The military garnered widespread praise for its crackdown on militancy after the school attack, which resulted in a sharp decline of terrorist incidents—and in turn, violence against journalists.
Yet the stepped-up activity put the military in position to exert even greater control. The armed forces are seen widely as an effective institution that holds the nation together, and offers protection.
To the east, Pakistan faces India, a far larger and powerful neighbor that is considered hostile, and with whom it has a territorial dispute over Kashmir.
To the west is Afghanistan, unstable and with a porous, mountainous border that creates obstacles to security. While the military submits to the formalities of civilian rule, it sees itself as a bulwark against what some view as the chaos of democratic politics. But it remains sensitive to criticism or allegations, such as its apparent support for terrorist groups in neighboring countries, including the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is accused of staging the Mumbai terrorist attack.
The military has quietly, but effectively, set restrictions on reporting: The military, intelligence, or military-linked and political groups were the suspected source of fire that resulted in half of the 22 journalist murders in the past decade, according to CPJ research.
Journalists find themselves in the middle of this battle, struggling to report while staying out of trouble.
Issues including religion, land disputes, militants, and the economy can all spark retaliation—and laws such as the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, a counterterrorism law that allows people to be detained without charge for 90 days, are used to retaliate against critical reporting.
Female journalists must navigate additional pressures when reporting in religiously conservative areas, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or rural districts. A detailed request for comment on this report, emailed to Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the armed forces, was not answered.
General Ghafoor earlier did not respond to a request for a meeting. A scheduled interview with the then information minister in Islamabad was cancelled at the last minute by the government.
Sometimes, as Noorani found, even the briefest lapse in security can expose a journalist to near-fatal consequences. Noorani, who writes for the daily paper, The News, admits he made a mistake before his attack. For the first time in years, he said during an interview in Islamabad, he used an unencrypted phone line to make an appointment for the next day.
Usually he uses an encrypted app to prevent others from eavesdropping on conversations. When Noorani started off on a mile 20 km drive from his home on October 27windows down on a pleasant day, neither he nor his driver noticed the motorcycles tailing the car.
When the car entered one of the few stretches along the route with no video surveillance, one of the motorbikes pulled in front of the car and stopped. It was then, Noorani said, that he made his second mistake. Seeing what he thought were a few harmless teenagers whom he took to be students, Noorani stepped out of the car.
The apparent students attacked him with knives, cutting him on the back of his head. One took a hard, well-aimed swing to his left temple with a tire iron, knocking Noorani to the ground. Only the intervention of construction workers interrupted the attacker, poised for a second blow to the head in what doctors told Noorani would likely have killed or incapacitated him for life.
Noorani spent four days in hospital. His driver was also injured. Who attacked Noorani, and why? The police investigation, said Noorani, turned up nothing aside from evidence that the attack was well-planned.Join Pakistan Army Tests Preparations Online.
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