It was on this day exactly a year ago that our colleague and friend Raza Rumi luckily escaped a brazen murder attempt on his life. While Raza received only minor injuries, his young driver lost his life, for no fault of his. Raza's car was sprayed with bullets by six men from a close distance as he was on his way home after recording a show that he anchored on Express News. A few months later, six "target killers" allegedly belonging to the anti-Shia Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) were arrested.
Supposedly they had claimed responsibility for the killing of popular Shia leaders as well as the attack on Raza for his anti-LeJ and anti-Taliban views.
Raza was and remains a liberal and outspoken voice on politics, society, culture, militancy, human rights and persecution of religious minorities. Maybe this was the reason those disagreeing with his views wanted him to go silent. Raza is thankfully alive, but has anything changed even though a year has passed since the attack?
Raza's attackers not only wanted to silence a voice against their warped views on religion, but also send out a message to anyone and everyone attempting to speak up against barbarity and injustice. Journalists and media houses in Pakistan have been a victim for quite a long time, either at the hands of the country's intelligence and security agencies or terrorists - sectarian and otherwise, basically anyone powerful one spoke against. In fact, the attack on Raza was the fifth on Express Media, his media group. Three of its staff members had lost their lives in an assault earlier that year.
A few days after the attack, Raza had told the AFP: "Extremists want no counter narrative in the state that is why they are attacking alternative voices."
And he was right. That attack may have targeted an individual at that time, but made it very clear that any journalist or media house can be targeted.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, an alarming 14 journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2014 only, making it the "most dangerous country for journalists".
Unfortunately, Raza had to leave the country to save his life and keep his family members in a safer environment. He now lives away from his friends, his country, his people, only because the state could not guarantee him protection, and he was left with no option but to leave. Even though he arranged for financial assistance for the family of his slain driver, they have been receiving threats for giving evidence in court. Raza himself is the complainant in the FIR and if he returns to pursue the case he could be targeted again as he's still receiving threats and hate despite being miles away. Who will protect him? If the law enforcement agencies could not protect him then, how can they protect him now?
Raza was one of the few sane, liberal, dissenting voices on television, who spoke explicitly against Talibanisation and in favour of the persecuted religious minorities in the country. He never minced his words when it came to analysing why Pakistan's intelligence agencies had nurtured extremist groups.
In Pakistan, a journalist's freedom to express, freedom to do his/her job will remain challenged until the state assumes its responsibility and cuts the umbilical cord perceived to be attached to militant groups. One word against anti-minorities groups and you're not only bombarded with abuse left, right and centre, but it can put your life at risk. But then again, a journalist's gotta do what a journalist's gotta do. You can either go silent and save your life or set all fears aside and continue your job expecting no help from state agencies meant to protect citizens and journalists.
Even in Raza's case, he was called an apostate, an Ahmadi, a Shia, an Indian agent (and now an American agent on social media) for his independent views on the old and new media. The six men were arrested but their handler/mastermind is still at large. All such cases meet a similar fate. Security agencies claim to arrest "the perpetrators", but no one's sure whether they were the actual culprits and, if they were, then what punishment they were meted out.
In a lot of cases, the very agencies meant to protect the country have been blamed for targeting journalists for speaking out against contentious issues such as the missing persons in Balochistan, the army and its intelligence agency's alleged ties with extremist militants or questioning conduct of the courts and judges. The very custodians of security and justice are often found at the wrong end.
If journalists are not guaranteed protection for freedom to express, they can't fend for themselves in such a hostile, intolerant society where the state apparatus appears powerless, weak or scared. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranked Pakistan 159th out of 180 countries where media freedom suffered a "drastic decline" in 2014.
A year on, living in the US, some may think Raza is leading a life of comfort. But that's far from the truth. He told me last week, "It has taken me some time to register that my life is not the same. Impacted by trauma, I have continued with my work minus the broadcast bit." When I asked him why he is afraid, he said he was "petrified that someone may just get hurt on my account and for the time being I cannot take the risk until the state dismantles the militant networks and assures people like me of protection and that freedom of expression is allowed without bullets reaching you".
I can understand his anguish, but feel terrible that people like Raza have to leave the country. He certainly was more than a conventional journalist. He was affiliated with think tanks, managed one for some time, a public intellectual and someone who was heavily engaged with youth activists across the country.
The question now remains: when will we protect freedoms? When will we ensure that journalists do not have to work in fear? When will the state break off its ties with militants who have killed thousands of innocent Pakistanis? Journalism in Pakistan is under a constant threat with journalists from both electronic and print media being intimidated into silence. Without a free press, we cannot even have a semblance of democracy, or expect that basic human rights will be guaranteed as society remains hostage to the militant mindset.
I am happy to see that Raza writes for many papers, edits weekly The Friday Times and is doing useful research work while being away. Living in exile is a compulsion and not a choice he made. Hope he returns some day.