Mounting Tensions Between Pakistan Media and Military


mir sahib picBy Malik Siraj Akbar

When the U.S. government provided me political asylum in 2011, I knew I was leaving behind several courageous journalist colleagues in Pakistan who would have to report under death threats every single day. Pakistan has consistently rankedamong the world’s deadliest places for journalists where they routinely receive deadly warnings from non-state actors, such as the Taliban, the country’s powerful military and its omnipresent intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) directorate.

The fresh assassination attempt on Pakistan’s leading television talk-show host Hamid Mir last weekend in Karachi, the country’s largest city, has renewed the debate about Islamabad’s commitment to the freedom of the press. Mr. Mir, who regularly writes a column for Jang, Pakistan’s most widely read Urdu language newspaper, and hosts a popular talk-show, the Capital Talk, was ambushed and critically injured on a busy Karachi road when he was traveling from the airport to his office.

Mr. Mir’s family has blamed the I.S.I. for the attack indicating that the veteran journalist had shared his fears with the family that the country’s rogue intelligence organization was contemplating an assault on him. The Pakistan army hasvehemently denied the charges and offered an investigation in the attack. In aninterview with Al Jazeera English soon after the tragic incident, I expressed my doubts if the I.S.I., the prime suspect in this shooting, would permit any independent inquiry into the incident.

With the accusations about the I.S.I’s involvement in another plot against a journalist, the failed assassination attempt has transformed into a major national debate in Pakistan about the army’s hostile relationship with the media and desperate attempts to strangulate dissenting voices.

It is highly unusual in Pakistan to raise fingers at the mighty I.S.I. or seek an explanation for its wrong policies and actions. Senior American authorities have accused the I.S.I. of having connections with the Haqqani Network, a terrorist organization Washington suspects of attacking the U.S. embassy and troops in Afghanistan. The I.S.I. had earlier been blamed in 2011 for the abduction, torture and murder of a prominent investigative reporter, Syed Saleem Shahzad, who had revealed possible links between the Pakistani armed forces and al Qaeda. Prior to his murder, Mr. Shahzad had informed the local chapter of Human Rights Watch that the I.S.I. was planning to harm him.

Mr. Mir, the popular talk-show host, has recently castigated the Pakistani army for its involvement in widespread human rights abuses in my native Baluchistan province. The Pakistani Supreme Court, human rights groups and sections of the media haveblamed the I.S.I. and Pakistani security forces for forcing thousands of young Baluch political activists and students to disappear while hundreds of them were tortured and murdered in government custody in what the Amnesty International calls a policy of “kill and dump.”

Bordering Iran and Afghanistan, Baluchistan is Pakistan’s poorest province in terms of human development although it accounts for the country’s richest gas, gold and copper reservoirs.

The Pakistani army has ruthlessly crushed the local Baluch population’s demand for maximum control on and benefits from their mineral wealth. While the Pakistani military strictly restricts journalists and news organizations from covering the war in Baluchistan, Mr. Mir was one such fearless journalist who frequently transgressed the military’s orders and reported about the human rights abuses attributed to the Pakistani army. In the military’s lexicon, sensitive issues like Baluchistan are marked as “red-lines,” covering which is very likely to invite trouble from the army.

When I covered the insurgency in Baluchistan as the Bureau Chief of a leading English language newspaper, Daily Times, I was astounded and significantly perturbed by the fact that the military excessively interfered in our professional and personal lives.

The military spends millions of rupees to bribe journalists to write congratulatory articles in support of the army and advocate for its position on critical national and international policies. The intelligence records journalists’ phone calls, summons them in the guarded military cantonment for “friendly advice” which is normally the first formal warning to a journalist that the army is not very pleased with a reporter’s dispatches. Before coming to the United States, I was also compelled to attend a couple of those “friendly advice” sessions with senior army officers.

Although journalist Mr. Mir worked in Islamabad, he was ambushed in Karachi. This reflects an established pattern of the Pakistani intelligence to harass journalists. The military keeps a record of wherever the journalists go and whoever they meet. The amount of time and energy Pakistan spends on influencing or harassing journalists is extraordinary.

In 2008, two intelligence officers stormed into my hotel room in Islamabad after I had met with an Indian journalist over dinner. “Why did you meet that Hindu woman?” asked one intelligence officer. “Don’t you know she is an Indian and an enemy of our religion and Pakistan?” Their questions sounded absurd but provided me food for thought about the intelligence service’s views and activities. Considering my personal safety, the Indian journalist suggested that we should never meet again. We did exactly what would have pleased the intelligence officers: We never did again.

The intelligence stopped me inside my hotel in January 2010 to warn me not to speak about Baluchistan at a conference in India. I refused to follow their dictations again and landed in their bad books for good. Unfortunately, the Pakistan military hires highly educated, articulate and smart young professionals to monitor, influence and intimidate journalists. Some of them are western-educated, sophisticatedly trained shrewd young people who, in spite of their foreign exposure, share a deep dislike for the United States, India and secularism.

The assault on Mr. Mir highlights the failure of the Pakistan’s fledgling democracy to limit the political authority of the nation’s military. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was himself ousted from power by the army in 1999, should take immediate measures to bring the military and its affiliated intelligence agencies under civilian oversight and accountability.

The government should end the prevailing culture of impunity vis-à-vis those who employ violence to muzzle the media under the pretext of ‘national interest’. The future of Pakistan’s democracy heavily hinges on the freedom of its media. By respecting and guarding the freedom of the Press, the Pakistani government will be minimizing the prospects of future derailment of the democratic rule in a country where the military had previously staged at least three coups in the past six decades.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on April 24, 2014

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