THIS INVESTIGATION IS PART OF THE JUSTICE FOR JOURNALISTS FOUNDATION INVESTIGATIVE GRANT PROGRAMME AND WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE).
The alleged murder of journalist and Vlogger Nazim Jokhio, by the ruling elite raises serious concerns on the safety and protection of journalists in Pakistan. In last four years, more than 42 journalists have been killed in the country and several have been threatened with serious repercussions for them or their families.
On November 3, 2021, Nazim Jokhio who lived in Aachar Salar village, Thatta district, intercepted some elite falconers driving around in the area. Accompanied by Pakistani facilitators, the falconers included members of the royal family from the UAE. They were hosted by Jam Awais, a member of the provincial assembly from the then ruling Pakistan People Party in Sindh.
The elite falconers were looking for the endangered houbara bustard, locally known as taloor in Sindhi. As Jokhio reprimanded the hunters, a verbal brawl began which was filmed by him and streamed live on his Facebook account.
When Jam Awais heard about this incident, he asked Jokhio to come to his farmhouse and on the insistence of his brother Afzal Jokhio, he complied. Before reaching the farmhouse, he posted another video statement on his Facebook account expressing serious concerns about his life and stated that if something went wrong, Awais should be held accountable. As they arrived at the farmhouse, the elder brother was asked to leave Jokhio there and depart.
The next morning, Afzal Jokhio received a phone call to come and take his brother away. When he arrived there, to his utter surprise, he found the dead body of his brother — apparently tortured to death.
“The night before when Jokhio had been in Jam Awais’s house in captivity, he was tortured and brutally murdered for altercation with foreign guests,” as per the first investigation report or FIR registered by the Jokhio family at the local police station.
The incidence led to widespread protests across Sindh for fair trial and provision of justice to the family of deceased journalist. Later, the case was filed in the anti-terrorism court in Malir, Sindh, Pakistan. The accused were arrested, but by paying the diyat or blood money, as per Islamic law, the culprits managed to flip the case in their favour and were soon released.
“Although democratic governments are established through popular vote, in Pakistan unfortunately, only the feudal, influential, elite and religious leaders come into power,” said Mehnaz Rahman, human rights activist and resident director of Aurat Foundation, commenting on the murder. “The common citizens have no right to speech, and they live at the mercy of the powerful and influential. In Jokhio’s murder case, our courts could not award any punishment to culprits, who were soon set free. This indicates how power dynamics work and exploit the underprivileged in Pakistan.”
According to the report filed by the Jokhio family at the local police station, Jam Awais’s elder brother Jam Abdul Karim, then member of the National Assembly, slapped Jokhio at the farmhouse for accosting the foreign guests and asked him to delete the video of the incident from his mobile. Later, he handed Jokhio over to the security guards who locked him up in a private room.
“I cannot forget the day this horrific incident happened,” says Jokhio’s wife Shireen as tears rolled down her face. “My husband’s brother took my husband to Jam’s farmhouse for settling the issue,” “But it was a ploy. My husband was tortured and killed later that night. There were several punch marks and injuries on his body. When they killed him, they informed his brother on the phone to take him away as though he was alive. The postmortem report also confirmed several injuries on my husband’s body.”
Houbara bustard and bird diplomacy
The houbara bustard is a large terrestrial bird found in the central Asian regions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Middle East, Mongolia and the Gobi Desert to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bird migrates from its nesting grounds in central Asia to wintering grounds in Pakistan.
Aided by trained falcons, heavy vehicles and large personnel, elite from the Middle East hunt houbara bustards in the desert and semi-desert areas of Pakistan. Every year, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues hunting permits to Arab dignitaries who hunt taloor birds in Sindh, Balochistan and parts of Punjab in each winter season starting from November 1 to January 30.
According to Naveed Soomro, manager of the Conservation Sindh Programme at IUCN Pakistan, houbara bustard is a globally endangered bird species that is declared vulnerable on IUCN Red List. He pointed out that due to hunting, poaching, habitat degradation and climate change impact, the bird population is rapidly decreasing in Pakistan.
According to BirdLife International, the houbara bustard population ranges between 33,000 to 67,000 globally. WWF-Pakistan’s statement on houbara bustard mentions that the bird is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in endangered species of wild flora and fauna and Appendix II of Convention on Migratory Species respectively. It further states that under these conventions, hunting of the bird is prohibited except for scientific research.
In 2015, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had banned the hunting of houbara bustard in the country. Later, a review petition was filed in the supreme court by the government on the premise that the ban damaged Pakistan’s diplomatic relations with Middle-Eastern states. Hence, the supreme court revoked its earlier decision and the ban was lifted.
Terming it ‘soft diplomacy’ or ‘bird diplomacy’, the government believes that houbara bustard helps to boost trade and develop friendly relations with Gulf states such as Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. Thus, it seems that the endangered houbara must lay its life if cordial relations are to be developed and maintained between the Pakistani government and the ruling elite in Arab countries.
Jokhio’s posthumous award
To recognise his efforts for nature conservation, WWF-Pakistan honoured of late Jokhio with the Syed Asad Ali Conservation award. The award was presented to Shireen Jokhio along with other award winners during a ceremony held in Lahore last month.
The judicial circus
While largescale protests by family, friends and relatives of the deceased journalist took place across Sindh for his brutal murder, the police department and influentials in the ruling party in Sindh were busy making backdoor efforts to save the killers. When the case was registered at the local police station, the former MPA Awais and his six security guards were arrested. Jokhio’s brother was the main petitioner and the proceedings of the case began at District Malir Court. To provide legal assistance and follow-up on the case, four lawyers from Sindh Legal Aid Committee offered their services free of cost.
Kazim Hussain Manesar, advocate Sindh High Court and member of the executive body of the Sindh Legal Aid Committee, informed that when the hearings began at District Malir Court, Jokhio’s brother backed out due to political pressure. Later, Jokhio’s wife became the main petitioner. As the elements of terror were deliberately associated with the case, it was transferred to Anti-Terrorism Court in Karachi. On legal grounds, the case was again shifted to Additional District and Session Judge who said that Jokhio’s wife was also threatened and pressurised by influentials and her in-laws to compromise. An agreement was reached between both parties and a copy of it was submitted to the Additional District Judge (ADJ). Under that agreement, the amount of Rs 3058,954 ($10,340) was paid as blood money to the family for murder as allowed by the Islamic law of diyat.
“Five out of the seven accused have been released on bail by ADJ,” says Manesar. “Chances are that all the accused may be acquitted soon due to submission of diyat agreement.”
However, Jokhio’s wife says she wants to pursue the case, but was pressurised by her in-laws to either remain silent or leave the house. “I have not received the blood-money nor pardoned the murderers,” she says.
According to legal experts, the diyat option is used in the murders committed accidentally or without any ill intention and as per the law, money is paid as compensation to the heirs or family. However, it cannot be applied in cases which involve the pre-planned murder, or where malicious intention is involved. It is unfortunate that the influential and powerful exploit this law and misuse it for legal, economic, or political gains.
The law is misused by the powerful and the elite in Pakistan. According to the Islamic scholar, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, it is the prime responsibility of the state to investigate the context of how the murder happened, and award punishment to the culprits as per law. The state should decide if diyat applies or not, and then reach out to the family of the victim for consent.
Media freedom – a sham or scam?
Jokhio was not the only journalist who was victimised, as dozens of other media people have been killed in Pakistan in last three decades. The data available on the website of Committee to Protect Journalists reveals that a total of 97 journalists and media workers have been targeted between 1992 to 2023 in Pakistan. According to a report by Freedom Network, 140 incidences of attacks and threats have occurred in Pakistan between May 2022 to March 2023. This indicates that media people in Pakistan do not enjoy freedom of expression and are often targeted.
How safe are journalists
After incessant efforts made by several journalist organisations working on freedom of expression, right to information, human rights, and safety and security of the journalists, the Sindh Assembly has passed the Sindh Protection of Journalists and other Media Practitioners Act and a commission has also been set up, yet journalists face several challenges, and fall victim to power politics in Pakistan. Jokhio’s murder is a clarion call to take immediate steps for protection of the journalists and provide security to their families.