PAKISTAN’S MEDIA UNDER SIEGE

Beena Sarwar

The Pakistani media has seen bad times in the past, and been punished heavily for its stand for democracy. Military dictator  Zia-ul-Haq censored newspapers and had journalists imprisoned and flogged. The next military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, took all the private television channels off air for weeks, causing losses of millions of rupees. The largest and most influential, Geo TV, was kept off-air for months after the others were restored.

Now, Geois under fire again. There’s an elected government, but it is again the military that is pushing for the channel to be shut down. Geo’s fault this time? Broadcasting — some say sensationalizing investigative reporter Amir Mir’s statement that the country’s powerful spy agency, the ISI, was behind the murderous attack on his brother, Hamid Mir, who hosts the popular Capital Talk show on Geo.

A storm began raging outside the Karachi hospital where Hamid lay unconscious, operated upon for six bullets that hit his body (three have yet to be removed).

Rival media groups criticised Geo for running visuals of the ISI chief with the accusations. Talk show hosts on rival channels implied that, since Hamid had survived, this was all a ‘drama’ to boost his ratings and popularity.

More ominously, the army and the ISI called for Geo to be banned. In their support, and against Geo, posters cropped up, demonstrations were taken out, and hashtags shared on social media. Cable operators took the channel  off-air.

The character assassination of Hamid, following the bullets, is reminiscent of what happened after Malala Yusufzai was attacked. The Jamat-e-Islami, in particular, tried to establish that Malala was not even shot, or that she was in cahoots with the US(as if that would justify the attack). That is also what happened after shots fired at journalist Raza Rumi in Lahore killed his driver.

The Dirty Tricks Brigade, my term for the psy-ops that have long been at work to de-rail and discredit progressive thinking in Pakistan, has been working hard. But in Hamid’s case, even many progressives question his credentials, terming him ‘pro-Taliban’ and ‘Indiaphobic’ with ‘Jihadist ideas’ that implicitly endorse the ISI’s agenda — a kind of Goebbels who deserves no sympathy.

I have not always agreed politically with Hamid, but he is neither ‘pro-Taliban’ nor ‘Indiaphobic’. Basically, he is an ambitious journalist who has made his way through hard work and ability to access all kinds of people, not all of them admittedly very savoury.

Given his somewhat strident nationalism, one can see how he may come across as anti-India. He is politically conservative and super-patriotic about Pakistan. This makes it even more ironic that his patriotism is being questioned.

When journalists like Hamid rely on anonymous sources in the agencies and elsewhere, it does not mean they are on the payroll of these organizations, though some may well be. Organizations with fascist tendencies don’t look kindly upon those who, despite such access, follow their own independent line of thinking.

They consider journalists, to whom they’ve given access and information, to be their own, even if there was no actual agreement. When the journalist ‘betrays’ them, they feel justified in taking action. Saleem Shehzad, who died after being beaten and tortured, may well have fallen victim to such thinking; Umar Cheema survived such treatment. This may also be the case with the attack on Hamid. 

But no one who is or has been hand-in-glove with Pakistan’s secret agencies would take the kind of bold stands Hamid has taken on 1971 and Balochistan, running completely counter to the ideological security establishment’s views.

Second, this is not the Pakistan it was some years ago. It has taken the critical first steps on the road to a democratic political process — in the long run the only way the country can progress, even survive. This process includes the military realizing that it is subservient to the elected civilian government, the elected government governing effectively and honestly, and accountability of all institutions and individuals.

We don’t know what the outcome of the current battle will be. But what is certain is that in this era of openness and accessible information, and of lack of privacy, secret spy agencies with their genesis in the Cold War years have become archaic. Hum dekhenge.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2014