Interview of the Month: Journalism Under Threat

Raza Rumi

In conversation with Raza Rumi

Over the last five years, reporting on sensitive issues has put journalists under extreme threat in Pakistan. Ranked at number nine on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ impunity index in 2014, and number 158 in the World Press Freedom index for 2014; Pakistan’s status as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists has been reinforced this year after high-profile attacks on leading anchor persons and mainstream media groups.

One such journalist, who survived a targeted attack on his life, is Raza Rumi. A former director of Jinnah Institute, Rumi is editor at The Friday Times and a talk show host with Express News. Fortunate to have survived the assassination attempt by a sectarian outfit for his outspoken and courageous advocacy for human rights, Rumi has had to leave the country due to continuing security concerns.

20 days after Rumi was attacked, Hamid Mir, a senior talk show host was targeted in Karachi. Unlike Rumi’s attack, which received limited media attention, attempt on Mir’s life became headline news in Pakistan. Mir alleged that segments within the country’s intelligence apparatus were responsible for the attack on his life because of his unfettered reporting on enforced disappearances in Balochistan.

Following Mir’s attack and subsequent allegations, the country’s media outlets launched into a sordid and self-destructive battle. While the media faces opposition from multiple detractors, recent infighting has rolled back the cause of freedom of press.

I interviewed Rumi on Skype about the attempted assassination on his life, the increasing threats to journalists and rising hostility amongst media outlets.

So far, we have read about the attempt on your life through news reports. Why do you think you were targeted?

It is difficult to ascertain exactly why I was attacked. What is clear is that my vigorous defence of Pakistan’s endangered minorities got me into trouble, and led to this deadly attack. Extremist discourse is so widespread that anyone who defends the rights of Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus is viewed as an “apostate”. And for many the punishment for apostasy is death.  The charge sheet is rather long but I’d rather leave it for you to think about.

Did you receive any threats before the attack occurred? 

On social media, I had stopped taking people seriously because the number and nature of threats was almost limitless. But two of those threats worried me, and I even mentioned them in one of my TV shows in 2013. One cited a Quranic verse, saying how enemies of Islam are eliminated and the other asked me to make arrangements for my family as I would need to pay a price for my views through my blood.

Your name was on a TTP’s hit-list of journalists, what were your first thoughts when you found out about the list?

First of all, the media group I am affiliated with was under attack by extremist outfits. And they had been receiving verbal and written threats. Secondly, I was told in February that my name was on a particular hit-list prepared by the Pakistani Taliban. I asked around – journalists, state officials, “informants”, but never got a satisfying answer. Many people said that this was an attempt to scare people opposed to government’s policy of talks with the Taliban.

You have stated earlier that you did not want to cede space to the extremists, what is your reaction to being forced into doing just that? 

I am outraged at having to suffer through the attack. More importantly an innocent life, of my chauffer, was lost for the simple reason that I opposed extremist narratives prevalent in the country. But I also think that staying alive may be the best way forward if I want to continue my work. If I were dead, that would have been an actual ceding of space. 

You took a few assertive stances as a talk show host; in fact you were very critical of the state of minorities, the space that religious extremists have in Pakistan, and on other vital issues. Were you ever told to tone down?

All the time, I was told not to name certain organizations, and be careful while talking about powerful state institutions. In all honesty I did tone down and attempted to engage with all shades of opinion. I even started a show “Maulana and I” with a media savvy deobandi cleric – Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi. Unfortunately, the state of affairs is such that one cannot challenge bigotry prevalent in the name of religion.

Pakistan’s media is a house divided. Do you think media infighting could push the struggle for press freedom back by years? 

Pakistan’s media landscape presents a sorry picture. On the one hand, various violent groups threaten and attack media workers. On the other, declining standards and corporate rivalries compound the matter. After the assassination attempt on me, individual voices of support notwithstanding, the response of media was simply pathetic. Rival channels refused to make it into an issue and even international media news outlets, with an Urdu website, made no significant effort. I am a cross platform analyst and writer, so discussions centered on whether I was a “journalist”. The fact that I have been affiliated with a print magazine since 2005 and have been an editor since 2008 was simply overlooked. This betrays inherent biases and reflects the inability of those in our profession to rise to the occasion. If an editor, columnist and a TV show host is not a journalist then how would you define him or her, a plumber or a technician?

Following the attack on Hamid Mir the charges against, and defence for, the ISI has completely sidetracked the actual issue – violence against journalists. While Mir’s parent media group could have demonstrated greater responsibility in its news coverage, the attempt by rival media groups to brand Mir a traitor, while he was battling for life, was utterly distasteful and surreal. Therefore, despite a number of heinous attacks on the lives of journalists, the threats to media freedom will remain as powerful as they were due to these very elements.

Who do you think is responsible for this lack of unity among journalists? 

The oligarchs of the media industry, driven by their corporate interests and political ambitions are directly responsible for the lack of consensus. Forget about pressurizing the state, most media houses do not even provide life insurance to their staffers who work in conflict zones and there is little or no security training.

In a climate of fear, with more than one opposing force bent upon eliminating voices of reason, how can progressives continue to talk? 

The turning point in Pakistan was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, which remains an unpunished crime. Benazir Bhutto was punished for taking a bold position on extremism and arguing for a moderate and plural society. Things have only gotten worse since then. We are turning into a gallery of martyrs, at time when we need a critical mass of politicians, journalists and activists to Jinnah’s vision of 11th Aug, 1947 alive. It is not surprising then that even Jinnah’s speech has been cited by some writers as fabricated. This must change if Pakistan is to survive as a functional society.

There is a long list of silent victims of violence against journalists. Unlike popular anchor persons, these journalists have no representation, with many cases going unsolved for years. Is there a short term solution to ensuring security for journalists in Pakistan? 

The short term solution has to be effective prosecution of crimes against journalists, and speedy trials that lead to a justice. Another short term solution is the necessity for media houses to immediately unite on a one point agenda. The current approach, which banks on “negative coverage,” hoping that it will bring about a change, is unproductive and unlikely to work.

You left your job abroad and came to Pakistan in 2008. Did you ever think that it would come to this?

I am an eternal optimist. I know that I could have died on that night in March, but this does not mean that I was not making a difference. My two pence attempts to change public discourse and toxic narratives were succeeding and the brutal attack only testifies to that. My only concern now is that I would not want anybody else to be harmed on my account. This is why I am taking a back seat and will stay abroad for some time until the state prosecutes those who killed 25 year old Mustafa.