The Rise and Fall of Pakistan’s Independent News Media
By Malik Siraj Akbar
A week after the shocking assassination attempt on Pakistan’s prominent television talk-show host, Hamid Mir, Islamabad has failed to locate and arrest the perpetrators. The Pakistani government has deflected attention from the whole issue of the attack on the senior journalist by instead recommending punitive action against Mr. Mir’sGeo Television, Pakistan’s biggest private news channel, for suspecting the involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s top intelligence agency, in an attack that has tremendously scared and outraged the journalist community in Pakistan.
It was less than a year that the world delightedly welcomed the first ever transition of democratic rule in Pakistan from one elected government to another through general elections that brought Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s center-right Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L.) into power. It is ironic that now a democratic government has decided to move against the independent news media which was liberalized under Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in early 2000s.
It is easy to speculate why Sharif’s government has chosen to side with the military instead of the media. Since the military enjoys overwhelming powers, including the ability to oust the democratic government, the latter believes it is not worth spoiling the relationship and trust of the military only to defend a journalist who vocally criticizes the army’s policies. In order to explicitly assure the military that it stands with those accused of masterminding the attack, not the victim journalist, the Ministry of Defense requested the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the highest body in Pakistan that grants or revokes licenses of the news channels, to shut down Geo Television.
In the wake of the serious charges of the Ministry of Defense that Geo Television allegedly harmed Pakistan’s ‘national interest’ and disrespected the top intelligence agency by blaming them for the attack on Mr. Mir, PEMRA has now asked Geo Television to plead until May 6th why it should not be shut down.
While we await the submission of Geo’s official statement, the Pakistan army, in the meanwhile, has already unleashed an arm-twisting campaign to alienate the Pakistani public from Mr. Mir and Geo by accusing them of not being sufficiently patriotic. This is an old but a highly dangerous ploy applied by the army to punish its critics.
Furthermore, Dawn, a widely respected English language newspaper, reported that the cable operators in several townships taken Geo’s transmission off air in parts of the country. The army seems to be the driving force behind these repressive and punitive measures against the independent media.
Despite intense government pressure, Mr. Mir, who still has a long way to fully recover from his injuries, reiterated his charges against the I.S.I. in a statement read out to the media by his journalist-brother, Amir Mir, on Thursday. In one of his firstinterviews after being critically shot, Mr. Mir told B.B.C. Urdu that elements close to the Pakistani military establishment were threatening to attack him again.
“They are asking me to leave Pakistan,” he said, adding, “These are people who appear as friends but deliver the messages of my enemies.”
In an article Six Bullets and Seven Nights, Mr. Mir charged that Pakistan was run by the army chief instead of the elected government.
The attack on Mr. Mir highlights two concerning patterns of paranoid behavior in the Pakistani society. First, the Pakistani government and the public, in recent years, have developed this disconcerting attitude of blaming the victim. It has somewhat become the new normal and totally acceptable to blame the victim of a terrorist attack instead of condemning the oppressors.
For instance, when Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007, General Musharraf said no one but Bhutto herself was to blame for her death because she stood up outside her car to wave to her supporters during an election campaign.
In 2011, a large portion of the Pakistani public and the media blamed Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province who was shot by his own security guard for disputing the infamous Blasphemy Law that mostly discriminates and penalizes the religious minorities in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Pakistan’s right-wing media and conservatives also blamed Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist shot by the Taliban for her outspoken position on women’s education. While some conspiracy theorists insisted that the attack had actually never taken place, the others believed the west used her as a propaganda tool against Islam and Pakistan.
Charges on Mr. Mir of defaming Pakistan’s armed forces and pleasing ‘our enemy’ are absolutely congruent with this unreasonable mentality of blaming the victim.
Second, the Mir episode has brought into public attention a grim and dark side of the Pakistani news media: the willingness of some media houses to voluntarily succumb to the military’s anti-media measures hoping to be rewarded financially with government advertisements and awarded with medals of patriotism. ARY News, a private news channel and Express Group, which owns a private news channel and two newspapers, have attracted criticism for overtly siding with the military during this hard time on the media and reporters.
Refusing to be censored on the issue of the attack on Mr. Mir, senior Express News talk-show host and veteran journalist Imtiaz Alam resigned from his job on April 22nd.
“It was Express TV/Express Tribune yesterday [alluding to the past attacks on Express Group] … it is GEO today and tomorrow it could again be Express or any other group,” he warned his bosses who, in their response, accepted Mr. Alam’s resignation but publicly accused him of “spitting venom, making wild accusations against the ISI”.
Likewise, ARY has used its platform to campaign against Mr. Mir. In one such show, the panelists of a talk-show questioned if Mr. Mir had actually been shot. They brazenly wondered why Mr. Mir was still alive and shot in the lower parts of his body, instead of his chest.
Shows that incite or glorify violence is not journalism. It is media-terrorism.
What we have seen during the past few days on Pakistan’s media landscape cautions us not to be overly optimistic about the future of that country’s “vibrant” news media. There is still a long way to go. The media faces extraordinary internal and external challenges. From within, sections of the media suffer from calamitous willingness to submit to the army pressure, chronic disunity and alarming lack of accuracy and professional accountability. On the external front, the media remains under such perpetual threats from the army and the Taliban that it will constantly remain vulnerable to censorship and even possible threats of permanent closure for being too honest.
This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on April 28, 2014