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No Laughing Matter: 9 Reasons Why It's Dangerous To Be A Journalist In Pakistan (in Political Cartoons)

Political cartoons are a powerful tool for breaking down society’s complex issues and conflicts. Because of this power, political cartoonists are very often on the frontlines of censorship and repression by governments and authoritarian regimes. This is the case for Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, who is tasked with the job of illustrating the challenges in one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist. Nazar will present some of his work in a public forum in Washington, DC on July 23, 2014.

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Sabir Nazar

Despite a 2008 transition from military to civilian rule, Pakistan’s military remains a powerful player in national politics. Recent government efforts to shut down Geo TV, one of the country’s largest private media broadcasters, were suspected to be related to the station’s critical coverage of the military establishment and its policies. To make matters worse, many other media outlets in Pakistan are allegedly echoing the military’s arguments and voicing support for the station’s closure.

2. Invisible Agencies Watch Over Your Shoulder.

Sabir Nazar

According to a recent report by Amnesty International, “No state actor is more feared by journalists than the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistan Armed Forces, or ISI.” TV news anchor Hamid Mir alleged that the ISI was behind a recent assassination attempt against him, and the ISI is often suspected of being behind other journalist kidnappings, torture, and disappearances.

3. Regulation – “Bring Out the Number 10 Shoe.”

Sabir Nazar

Through restrictive laws and government regulatory bodies like the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA), government officials can determine what is appropriate content for broadcasting. PEMRA can make life difficult for media outlets by launching investigations and legal cases, suspending broadcast licenses, levying fines, and implementing ad hoc enforcement of other regulations.

4. Catering to Religious Extremists.

Sabir Nazar

Religious extremist groups like the Taliban consider themselves at war with journalists and media outlets who provide critical coverage of their activities—for example, issuing a fatwa against journalists who covered the Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafazi. Media outlets and journalists often bow to pressure and refrain from covering terrorist activities in order to avoid a violent backlash. Some segments of the media are even sympathetic to fundamentalist ideology and spin conspiracy theories to justify the activities of extremist groups.

5. Lockdown on Cultural Space.

Sabir Nazar

Certain topics considered too sensitive to be discussed in the media may be censored, such as a recent New York Times article related to the lack of religious freedom in Pakistan. Using religious pretexts, some political parties and religious organizations have pressured the government to ban cultural activities like kite-flying, public music concerts, and religious dance and music performances at Sufi shrines. In effect, these restrictions limit cultural space and topics that journalists are able to cover.

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6. Internet Censorship — Sweeping up the Filth.

Sabir Nazar

Pakistan’s government is developing a number of tools with the potential to censor internet content in Pakistan, including the implementation of URL filtration technology developed by Netsweeper and a draft cyber crimes law that digital rights activists fear could be used to persecute individuals who publish comments critical of the government or military on social media. YouTube remains restricted since it was blocked in September 2012 over the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer.

7. Impunity — Cases that Go Cold.

Sabir Nazar

Facing the possibility of beatings, kidnappings, torture, and murder, Pakistan’s journalists have little reason to trust that perpetrators of crimes against them might be brought to justice. Pakistan ranks ninth in the world on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2014 Impunity Index for the number of unsolved journalist murders. Even high-profile international cases, such as the 2002 murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl (Wall Street Journal), remain unsolved over a decade later.

8. Letters to the Edit(or)…

Sabir Nazar

Editors receive many of the same threats as journalists and run the risk of being kidnapped, tortured, or murdered for allowing the “wrong” stories to be published by their media outlet. In July 2014, the bureau chief of Express News narrowly survived an explosive device that was dropped outside his house by a masked man on a motorcycle.

9. Self-Censorship.

Facing these pressures, many journalists simply decide that it's safer to stick to "soft" topics, like sports, cooking, and pop culture. Sabir Nazar says that if he's not able to publish what he really wants to say, then he would rather not publish anything at all.

Sabir Nazar is a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the International Forum for Democratic Studies in Washington, DC. To learn more about how he is trying to reclaim cultural space in Pakistan through the power of images, watch Sabir Nazar's presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy, co-sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance.

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