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Murder is an extreme form of censorship. That journalists in Pakistan are killed at the rate of seven a year, or staggeringly one every 50 days (since January 2000), is hard to accept. That not a single killer has been unmasked, save that of Daniel Pearl, borders on the incredible.

So is it surprising that the most high-profile inquiry ever formed to probe the murder of a journalist has also drawn a blank? The surprise would have been had the Saleem Shahzad judicial commission, headed by a serving judge of the Supreme Court, actually found the security agencies having a hand in the matter.

But the next best thing has happened. The commission has drawn attention to the worst kept secret in the journalist community: Intelligence agencies are key actors in influencing opinion. Harassing hacks to death if need be. The commission’s report says that both state and non-state actors could have had a motive to kill Shahzad, if his foul murder is seen in the context of the ‘war on terror’ – a subject that was all that the late journalist reported about for the past several years.

Furthermore, the commission – and this is the real surprise in the report – calls for greater control and accountability of spy agencies like the ISI and IB, both from within and externally. This is an emphasis that would be astounding even if this were not a probe into the murder of a journalist. But when it is, it only brings to the fore the deep link between the security apparatus and the violence generated by its interface with terrorism and the journalists who are forever caught in-between, in their unhappy responsibility of staying neutral and thereby making one of the armed parties unhappy with them.

The rise of terrorism in Pakistan and its ugly spread over the past decade has coincided with the expansion of the media and an influx of unqualified, untrained journalists (from 2,000 in 2002 to 17,000 now) who had to report terrorism in a culture of secrecy. There were bound to be casualties – reporting conflict even in the best of circumstances is a sensitive, specialized discipline for the experienced, leave alone those being baptized in the profession – and there were: of the 76 killed, 34 were target-shootings, 7 were kidnapped-and-killed, two were beheaded and 13 blown up in suicide bombings.

A high percentage of the 76 journalists have been killed in Pakistan for reporting conflict and naming names. But what has really killed them is what has only been indirectly hinted by the commission report: exercising the fundamental right to freedom of expression (Article 19 of the Constitution) and right/access to information (Article 19A). Because the Pakistani state keeps secrets, its journalists endanger themselves by taking risks in unfriendly environments.

And because there are virtually no opportunities for specialized trainings and no real interest by most media groups to build capacities of their journalists, the risks also remain high because of inattention to ethical and professional journalism. The commission therefore is right in pointing out the need for the press also to be transparent – read professional. Indeed, half the safety lies in ethics.

While it would seem like stating the obvious when the commission report says “it is in the nation’s best interest for the public to know the truth.” This is indeed the bedrock principle of journalism. However, it is disappointing that the commission did not call for mandatory investigation by the state, as a priority, into the killing of the 75 journalists whose cases remain unresolved, and to identify and prosecute their killers. Without bringing their killers to justice, impunity will prevail and a free license will remain available to kill more journalists in Pakistan –four more journalists have been killed since Saleem Shahzad.

Lastly, the media industry – associations of media owners, managers, editors and practitioners – must evolve a basic “charter of safety” that entails prioritizing safety and security of journalists in their constitutions and institution of basic minimum safety protocols within media houses. That’s what will keep journalists safe, not commissions. And as long as lives remain worthier than news, no journalist need die.

By Adnan Rehmat, Executive Director Intermedia Pakistan

Originally Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2012.

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