In the Search for Truth


BeFunky_Hamid_Mir_interviewing_Osama_bin_Laden.jpg An emerging, politically motivated, and anti-establishmentarian press has become a powerful player in virtually every country in the world. This media, in its various forms, has made governments more accountable, increased the flow of information within and across countries, and politicized societies across the developing world. Pakistan is possibly the leading example of this phenomenon. The newly emergent middle class and civil society within the country worked together to bring down the military (and then civil) dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008. What was then called the "Lawyer’s Movement" cooperated with the courts and the media to remove Musharraf from power.

Ironically, it was Musharraf, a self-proclaimed "lifestyle liberal," who was responsible for the growth of the very media and civil society that ultimately led to his downfall. Musharraf came to power in 1999, and until 2002 there existed only one private television channel in the country: Geo TV. When Musharraf was ousted from power in 2008, however, there were over seventy of these channels, and over 100 FM radio stations. Musharraf’s personal affinity for liberal values (commandeered and dominated, of course, by his affinity for power) led to the expedited growth of a politicized civil society in a country that desperately needed it.

Yet, even with this emergent media, Pakistan is, in the words of Anatol Lieven, a "hard country." This is most true, perhaps, for journalists. Pakistan consistently ranks in the top five worst countries for journalism. More journalists are killed in Pakistan than almost anywhere else, and very little is done, in terms of legislative or executive capacities, to change this.

Hard data is very difficult to come by, and estimates of the extent of violence against journalists vary greatly. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for instance, estimates that 53 journalists have been killed (motive confirmed) in the country since 2000, while an addition six media workers and 17 journalists have been killed (motive unconfirmed) during the same timeframe. Other estimates, from NGOs based locally within Pakistan, put the figure as high as over 75 killed since 2010. Perhaps the most frightening detail about these figures is that in Pakistani history, there have only been two convictions in the cases of journalist murders – those of Daniel Pearl in 2002 and Wali Khan Babar in 2011.

Incidents of violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence in Pakistan, primarily for two major reasons. The first is the prevailing law and order situation in Pakistan, which is characterized by the absence of a reliable security apparatus. Of all motive-confirmed murders of journalists, 43% targeted journalists reporting on armed conflict (23 of 53). In a country where as many as 48 terrorist groups operate in some form or another, it is not unlikely that extra-state violence against journalists will exist. South Waziristan and other areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have traditionally been dangerous places for journalists to work, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been the most successful in committing acts of violence against journalists. Working in cities, where gangs, land mafias, and politicized militias operate, has too been dangerous for journalists: 18% of those killed have been reporting on corruption, 29% on crime, and 63% on politics (note that the sum of the listed percentages exceeds 100% because multiple categories can apply to a single journalist).

The second reason for the extreme violence against journalists within Pakistan is the threat posed from within the state apparatus. Although politicians and political parties are often responsible for threats (see the figures above for journalists reporting on corruption), the greater and more frightening threat comes from the military, specifically from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s intelligence agency. The ISI has been accused by many, particularly in recent years, of carrying out or ordering extra-judicial killings of journalists. The most famous case of suspected ISI involvement in an attack on a journalist was that of Hamid Mir in early 2014.

Mr. Mir, a journalist and talk show host on Geo News, is Pakistan’s premier media personality. His show Capital Talk presents views that are determinedly antiestablishment and present a legitimate subversive threat to, among other powers, the military establishment. The military, having maintained direct or indirect control over the country’s government for the majority of Pakistani history, still has great influence over the political scene. Hamid Mir regularly criticizes this influence, and calls for greater civilian oversight into the military. In 2011, Mir sent a letter to the Committee to Protect Journalists in which he wrote:

I am sure that security establishment of Pakistan is once again angry with all those who will raise questions about the political role of Army. If anything bad happens with me or my ‘dear ones’ the security establishment will be responsible.

In November 2012, half a kilogram of explosives were found attached to the bottom of Hamid Mir’s car. Then, on the 19th of April 2014, Mr. Mir’s vehicle was attacked while he was on his way from the Karachi airport to his office at Geo News. He received six bullets but ultimately survived. He had this to say in the days following the attack:

An assassination attempt was made on my life a few days ago, in Karachi. I have six bullet wounds. Geo TV aired reports about my family's suspicion that elements within Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the ISI, could be the mastermind of the attack. I had told my management many times in the recent past that ISI officials were trying to use extremists to silence my voice.”

Hamid Mir’s brothers, Amir Mir and Imran Mir, both also journalists, publicly proclaimed their suspicions that ISI was behind the attack, and stated how Mr. Mir had received threats, most likely from individuals within the ISI, in the past. Although these proclamations were unsubstantiated, the airing of an episode in which Mir was particularly critical of the military establishment just days before the attack does create problems for the ISI.

In response, a three-member judicial commission was established by the Supreme Court to look into the attack. The commission was supposed to report its findings within three weeks. It still has not done so.

According to Hamid Mir, Geo News and other critical media organizations are "under attack from all directions." Advertising agencies are being coerced into not advertising on these channels, and cable operators are being coerced into not carrying these channels at all. All this exists along with the threats that individual journalists and media personalities face daily. It is important here to note that these claims are, again, unsubstantiated. However, this has more to do with the cloak of secrecy within which the ISI operates than anything else. The lack of civilian oversight into the organization means that very little of the ISI and its workings are known outside the military.

It is clear that Pakistani journalism is under great threat from all directions, and that meaningful legislative and political change needs to be brought about to ensure the continued growth of Pakistani media and civil society in general. The government should pass a shield law, as has been undertaken across Western Europe, to protect journalists. More importantly, however, attacks on journalists must be treated differently from other attacks. They must be seen as attacks against democracy, as attacks on politicians are seen. They must thus be tackled at the highest level and with the cooperation of other journalists to prevent them from occurring again in the future.