Events of the past few weeks have brought the crisis in Pakistani journalism into sharp focus, both nationally and internationally. The failed assassination attempt on Hamid Mir has led to a tense standoff between Geo TV and the Independent Media Corporation on one side, and the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence on the other. The war of words, and the brazen attempt to kill one of Pakistan’s best known journalists in broad daylight, have been chilling reminders of the ever-present threat of censorship that threatens media enterprises as well as individual journalists.

Of course, attacks on journalists in Pakistan are unfortunately nothing new, and today Amnesty International is releasing a new report that paints a disturbing picture of a media community under siege. Since the restoration of democracy in 2008, we have recorded the killings of at least 34 journalists in Pakistan because of their reporting – eight of these have happened since the Nawaz Sharif government took office, and five since the turn of the year. Only in one of these cases have those responsible been brought to justice. But this does not tell the full story: dozens more have survived assassination attempts, been abducted and tortured, or received death threats.

The country’s media is being squeezed in an increasingly deadly tussle between competing state and non-state political actors played out at the expense of journalists. Those covering sensitive national security issues and human rights abuses are particularly at risk from the intelligence agencies, political parties, and armed groups like the Taliban.

Geo TV’s allegations against the ISI must be taken seriously and only a thorough, independent and impartial investigation will reveal the identity of Hamid Mir’s assailants. Dozens of other journalists have previously contacted Amnesty International to register claims of harassment and abuse they blame on the spy agency. Most, however, refused to be featured in our report or go public since they feared for their own and their families’ safety – a damning indictment of the power of the ISI and the government’s weak response.

Yet from our detailed research emerges a clear pattern of methodical harassment, beginning with threatening phone calls from intelligence agents. If warnings are not heeded and journalists persist with independent reporting on sensitive topics – like alleged links between the military and the Taliban or security lapses –they eventually face harassment, abductions, torture and other ill-treatment. Some are never seen again.

The often viciously competitive media space in Pakistan also leads to powerful political actors pressuring journalists for favourable coverage. In the volatile political climate of Karachi, journalists live under the constant threat of abuse by the Pakistani Taliban, sectarian religious groups and political parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). In order to halt negative coverage, these groups appear to have done everything from cutting broadcast cables to inciting violence or killing journalists.

The Taliban and al-Qa’ida-linked groups are ever present in the insurgency-hit Tribal Areas. One reporter interviewed by Amnesty International recounted how he was held and tortured by an al-Qa’ida-linked group for two months because he was suspected of spying for the US drone program. One his torturers later simply explained, “Sorry, we made a mistake”.

But if there is one region that stands out as dangerous for media workers even by Pakistan’s deadly standards, it is Balochistan. Of the 34 killings we have recorded since 2008, 13 took place in the province – and no place is more deadly than the city of Khuzdar, where six of the killings happened. Journalists who report on human rights abuses by either armed groups or state security forces are at particular risk of threats or violence. Just one example is the BBC’s Ayub Tareen, who in 2012 had to flee the province following death threats from an armed group – it was the third time he had had to leave Balochistan in eight years following similar threats.

Pakistan’s media scene has a well-deserved reputation as being vibrant and fearless, with many journalists steadfast in the face of repressive military regimes in the years and decades past. But the current situation of being stuck in the middle puts journalists in an impossible position, where every story on the latest human rights abuse or critical of armed groups or the government risks a deadly response.

The weak response by Pakistani authorities has sent the signal that powerful actors can use violence against media with impunity, and literally get away with murder. Few of the 74 cases we investigated for our report have led to prosecutions, with convictions in only two cases. The chilling effect on freedom of expression is apparent, as journalists increasingly self-censor to avoid the risk of abuse.

Only immediate steps to address the impunity can stem this tide of abuses. The challenges are large, but there are answers. The Sharif government made some promises, such as to establish a public prosecutor to investigate attacks on journalists, and to “reinvigorate” the investigation into Saleem Shahzad’s killing.

But these do not go far enough. The Pakistan government must start by ensuring that the perpetrators in all cases, including the high-profile assassination attempts on Hamid Mir and Raza Rumi, and the abduction and killing of Saleem Shahzad, are brought to justice regardless of their affiliations.

The media enterprises themselves must also provide adequate training, support and assistance to their staff and not undermine the efforts of rival outlets to seek justice for their journalists.

Without these urgent steps, there is a very serious risk that more and more of Pakistan’s media will be intimidated into silence.

The writer is Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.