Who is behind the violent and sometimes fatal attacks on the media in Pakistan?
KARACHI, Pakistan — In an example of what is increasingly becoming the new normal for people working in media in Pakistan, a popular television presenter and commentator was seriously wounded in an attack by armed gunmen on Saturday.
Based in Islamabad, Hamid Mir works for Geo TV, a private television network, and is known for being the first journalist to interview Osama bin Laden after 9/11. Mir had been traveling from the airport in Karachi to his office at the time of Saturday’s attack.
There has been a surge in attacks on journalists and media personnel in the past year. In the last nine months, Express Media Group — a media organization that includes English- and Urdu-language newspapers and a TV channel — has been targeted six times, leaving four dead.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, 54 journalists have been killed in Pakistan. The organization is “reasonably certain” these journalists were killed in line of duty.
The attack on Mir hit a raw nerve because the suspect this time is none other than Pakistan’s powerful spy agency — the Inter-Service Intelligence.
“The ISI chief had worked out my assassination plot,” Amir Mir quoted his older brother, Hamid Mir, as saying on Geo TV.
“It is hard to say who could be behind this,” Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told MintPress News, adding, “Apart from the reasons he himself gave… and prior similar charges made by others.”
Yusuf pointed out that Saleem Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and Italian news agency Adnkronos International, “had also similar fears before he was killed.” Shahzad’s tortured body was found on May 31, 2011.
“It would be unfair to point fingers without evidence, especially when Hamid Mir has ruffled many feathers,” said Hasan Abdullah, an independent journalist.
Abdullah believes Pakistan is not an easy turf for a journalist, as there are real threats coming from both state and non-state actors. But he dismisses the notion that the Pakistani Taliban, a group that has routinely threatened the media, could be behind Mir’s attack.
“The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has denied involvement and I believe its claim, given the circumstances,” said Abdullah, referring to the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban.
“It would target the media once the talks collapse and it would definitely want to cash in on a high-profile media personality,” he continued.
Condemning the incident, the Inter Services Public Relations, an armed forces organization that coordinates military information with the media and civil society, issued a press release in which it was quick to show its displeasure for the ISI having been named as a suspect in Mir’s attack, calling the move “highly regrettable and misleading.”
“If ISI feels it has been attacked and its reputation has been tainted, it should put the record straight. This is not the first time they have been suspected of foul play. It should hold an inquiry instead of getting all worked up,” Umar Cheema, a special correspondent with English daily The News, told MintPress.
The News is also a sister company of the Jang Group, of which Geo TV is an affiliate.
“I met Mir a couple of days back and he jokingly asked if I had received any threats recently,” said Cheema, whose writing has landed him in trouble several times already.
In fact, every time some member of the media points fingers at the ISI, Cheema relives the day of torture he endured at the hands of the intelligence agency on Sept 4, 2010.
Cheema, who is a recipient of Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award for his courageous reporting, said, “Mir told a few of us that day that he had recorded his statement of who he will hold responsible in case an attempt on his life is made.”
Commission after commission
The attack on Mir has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum. At the highest level, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has assembled a three-member judicial commission to investigate the attack. The commission will finalize its investigation in the next three weeks. The government has also announced a reward of 10 million Pakistani rupees ($101,940) for anyone who can provide information about the assailants, an official statement said.
Neither Abdullah nor Cheema has much faith in such commissions, though.
“These commissions do not carry out criminal investigations, they just give directions and recommendations as to the course the investigation should take. And with the way our police investigates a case, this one is a non-starter,” Cheema said.
“In any case, we all know well what happens to someone who tries to get to the bottom of the story — they are eliminated!”
“The culprits will never be apprehended,” he concluded.
Similar commissions were created in the past to probe allegations that intelligence agencies were involved in the murders of tribal journalist Hayatullah Khan and Saleem Shahzad. But nothing came out of these investigations.
According to Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, “The commission’s failure to get to the bottom of the Shahzad killing illustrates the ability of the ISI to remain beyond the reach of Pakistan’s criminal justice system.”
Journalists stand divided
Meanwhile, there are more fractures in the journalistic community than ever before. Earlier this month, Kamal Siddiqi, the editor of English daily Express Tribune, a sister outlet of Express News, had written about how poorly the community has done in forging a united front.
“There are splinters within splinters,” he lamented.
With media outlets and journalists jockeying to take a position either for or against the ISI, the real issue has conveniently been swept under the carpet. The government and media owners need to formulate a policy to protect journalists from humiliation, intimidation, torture and even death at the hands of state and non-state players who want to quash all dissenting voices. Until the press is safe, the freedom of the press will dwindle even further.