A World Without The Death Penalty
What Responsibility does Media and Journalism Play?
Pakistan has conducted over 500 executions since the moratorium on death penalties was lifted in 2014 after the heinous APS massacre. Pakistan has joined the rankings of countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and Iraq where state sanctioned death sentences are carried out with mass public support.
In the last week of February 2019 humanitarians across the globe gathered in Brussels to attend the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty. Sponsored by the European Union, the Congress revolved around the current state of death penalty around the world and effective ways to initiate dialogue around abolition.
Amongst the several workshops and panels, one that stood out questioned the role of media in perpetrating positive reinforcement of death penalties against rehabilitation, and training that can be conducted to educate journalists in playing their part in campaigning for abolition.
Representing Pakistan was Aroon Arthur, Director of Redemption Pakistan, an NGO dedicated to providing restorative justice to the imprisoned masses.
The way Pakistani media talks about death penalties and sentencing is not only problematic, it is harmful. More often than not death sentences are not reported on mass media and even when they are only numbers and names are recited without any humanizing information about those sentenced to death.
This negligence results in the misinformed notion that death sentences curb crime rates, and all death sentences are deserved. Ask anyone in Pakistan right now and most people are enthusiastic supporters of the death penalty. Yet if factual data is consulted the results are shocking – a higher death sentence rate does not equate to lower crime rate. Then what exactly does the death penalty achieve?
The true calling of journalism is not to portray the current situation in a positive light but to ask questions that the populace needs to know the answers to. Journalism is a constant endeavor towards the truth and the truth is that the Pakistani justice system is flawed. Political cases in the backlogs of courts and those decided by NAB are constantly under media scrutiny for being wrong or unjust yet the confidence bestowed upon these same courts and judges when a death sentence is announced is hypocritical and points to a deeper problem.
Media’s job is not to approve state actions but to question them and it makes the task of those striving for death penalty abolition that much harder.
Yet it’s not all bleak.
Many journalists have taken a tough stand in reporting the intricate details of false convictions, and brought the stories to the fore even when their lives, and the safety of their families were threatened.
Take the case of Aftab Bahadur Masih – Aftab was 15 years old when he was convicted of a crime he did not commit. The witnesses against him detracted later, and there was evidence to show that his confession was taken under torture. But nothing the journalists did made much of a difference because Aftab’s lawyers were refused access to their client, and the then Prime Minister refused to show clemency.
Aftab Bahadur was hanged on June 10th 2014. He was thirty-eight and had spent most of his life in a death row cell in Kot Lakhpat Jail.
His death inspired ‘You Can Stop This At Any Time’ a harrowing art installation at the 10th Karachi Literary Festival that invited participants inside a small 8×8 box where they come face to face with an accused on death row. They are given the man’s life history, the details of the case, and told that he will be hanged in a matter of minutes if they don’t press the red button to make it stop.
When brought face to face with the stories of those on death row most people refused to let the hanging take place.
This is the job of journalism and media, to bring us the humanized faces of those behind the name and numbers of death row inmates. It makes a great difference to see an inmate and recognize yourself or those you love in their faces. It gives pause to the destructive nature of death penalties.
When media chooses to do its job it can change the perspective of the masses or at least bring an alternating point-of-view to what’s being preached as fact. When media does its job it gives voice to those who can’t raise it in their confined cells.
Redemption Pakistan has been working tirelessly for decades to give the innocent a voice. Where it works to release those falsely accused, or those with mental health concerns it also asks for complete abolition of the death penalty because it just does not work. Not to mention our justice system favors the rich, and unjustly criminalizes and punishes the poor. A lot of the accused in prison are those who can’t afford lawyers, or bail, or are unable to bribe their way out of the initial FIR.
As an alternative Redemption works on rehabilitation of prisoners, especially juveniles, who have a shot at improving their lives and being productive members of society rather than waiting their potential as they languish in jail being of no use to themselves or those around them.
These prisoners hold a lot of potential and they are not hardened criminals without moral compasses that they can’t be rehabilitated. Our prisons are full to bursting, and killing off the inmates is not the answer. We need to instill rehabilitation systems, especially in juvenile prisons so these inmates can serve their time while preparing to come out as positive influences when they rejoin society.