Fighting fundamentalism

Bullets to the editor: Five things you can't say in Pakistan

A failed assassination attempt on noted Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi highlights the dangers of speaking frankly in Pakistan.

Yesterday evening in central Lahore, unidentified gunmen attacked the car of senior Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, who was on his way home after co-hosting a TV show on the Express News TV channel. The gunmen sprayed the car with bullets, 11 of which hit Rumi's 25-year-old driver, who succumbed to injuries. His guard is in a critical state. Rumi escaped miraculously unhurt but visibly shaken. "I was dreading this day," he tweeted.

Rumi is a co-anchor on the channel's daily show, Khabar Se Aagey, meaning "ahead of the news". He is also an editor with The Friday Times, a senior fellow at the Jinnah Institute think-tank and a frequent visitor to India. His visits to Delhi gave him the material for a book on the city, Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller.

No organisation has taken responsibility for the attack, but it is clearly meant to silence him. The attack is also being linked to the channel, Express News, which is part of the Express media group, which also publishes an English and an Urdu newspaper, and an entertainment channel.  It is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's most despised media group. In December, the group's Karachi office faced a bomb attack that left three injured. The group did not heed that editorial warning, so three employees of the media group were gunned down on January 17. The TTP took responsibility for the attack, and its spokesperson agreed to explain on the group's own Express News channel why they did so. The Express group, he said, was playing the role of a propagandist against the Taliban.

While many in Pakistan, including its media, condemn the Taliban or argue for military action against it, the Express group was said to be the most outspoken. Faced with the Taliban's bullets to the editor, the English-language Express Tribune paper, the boldest of the group's offerings, decided to censor itself. An email to the staff from editor Kamal Siddiqi said the paper would have "nothing against any militant organisation and its allies like the Jamaat-e-Islami, religious parties and the (Pakistan) Tehrik-e-Insaf", the latter being the name of Imran Khan's party. There would also be "nothing on condemning any terrorist attack", "nothing against TTP or its statements" and "no opinion piece/cartoon on terrorism, militancy, the military, military operations, terror attacks". The Taliban could no longer be described as "outlawed" or "militant", and the features pages would become more conservative in choosing images of women.

The paper's op-ed pages were the worst affected, because they used to attempt to speak truth to power. One columnist, Ayesha Siddiqa, said that there were so many holy cows that she was only left with food as a subject to write about. Another columnist of the paper is Raza Rumi, and the assassination attempt on him is thus being seen as an attempt to silence him on Twitter, TV and other platforms.

After the failed assassination attempt, Rumi said he didn't plan to censor himself. Here are five things he's recently spoken or written about:

1. Condemn the threat to life by militant groups
The TV show Rumi co-hosted just before he was attacked was about a threat to the life of the Pakistan People's Party president Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Bhutto had tweeted that he had received threat letters from the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi, which is known for its attacks on Shias. Since the Jhangvi group is said to be based in south Punjab, Bhutto said that he would hold the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, responsible for such an attack. Sharif belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), whose leader Nazwaz Sharif is Pakistan's prime minister. Rumi's comments on the controversy, just before he was attacked, can be heard on the show.

2. Question mob violence in the name of blasphemy
This show also discusses a court's decision to award the death penalty to a Christian man, a road sweeper, accused of blasphemy against Prophet Mohammad. Some say it's a false case arising out of a personal dispute. When the alleged incident happened a year ago, a mob had set on fire the neighbourhood in which the Christian man lived, Lahore's Joseph Colony. Opposing the blasphemy law had led to the assassination of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Rumi's sarcasm in such matters perhaps annoys the supporters of the blasphemy law even more.

3. Oppose negotiations with the Taliban
Several supporters of Imran Khan's party were seen on Twitter dismissing the outrage over the attack on Rumi, and some were even making fun of it. Imran Khan is a leading advocate of peace talks and negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, whereas Pakistani liberals like Rumi oppose such talks until the Pakistani Taliban puts down arms. This is what Rumi's last column in the Express Tribune was about. Critics of peace talks argue that the Taliban's long-term agenda of undermining the Pakistani state means there can be no negotiations with them. They think that negotiation will only increase the legitimacy and space for the extremists. Instead, they favour military action against them.

4. Persecution of Ahmadiyas
Even more urgent is the issue of the Ahmadiya sect, who in Pakistan are declared non-Muslim by law. Ahmadiyas migrated to Pakistan from Qadiyan, in Indian Punjab, and have often faced violence. Rumi is an outspoken critic of the persecution of Ahmadiyas.

5. Persecution of Shias
Considering Rumi's show just before his attempted assassination was about the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi's threats to public figures including Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Rumi's writings and TV appearances against the persecution of Shias in Pakistan may also not have gone down well with militants. The persecution of Shias has increased so much in recent years that some call it "genocide".

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