Muzzling Pakistan’s Media

Karachi, Pakistan — Pakistan’s media is in upheaval these days. But it’s not because of the stuttering “talks” between the government and militant groups, who have publicly vowed to target journalists.

The current upheaval began with the attempted assassination in Karachi on April 19 of Hamid Mir, arguably Pakistan’s most recognizable talk show host and journalist. Mr. Mir survived despite taking six bullets. The real furor came not in reaction to the attack but to Mr. Mir’s employer — Geo Television — which broadcast Mr. Mir’s distressed brother’s statement accusing the country’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, of being behind the attempted murder.

Most Pakistanis were stunned by these blunt accusations. Even with stronger proof, charges against the I.S.I. or serving military officers are unheard of in a country that has spent half of its existence under military rule and where the intelligence services still exert a powerful and often-intimidating influence.

There have been allegations of military complicity in the targeting of journalists before — most notably in the killings of Hayatullah Khan in 2006, Syed Saleem Shahzad in 2011 and Abdul Razzak Baloch in 2013 — but the difference this time was that the accusations were being made by family members of a man who had survived and could corroborate them.

The military’s spokesperson, while sympathizing with the Mir family’s distress, termed the allegations “emotional” and Geo’s conduct in continuing to air them, “irresponsible.” But far more remarkable was the conduct of some of Geo’s competitors. Attempting to be more loyal than the king, they jumped into the fray, criticizing Geo for its “lack of editorial control” and “flouting of journalistic ethics” in allowing the accusations to be broadcast.

In normal circumstances, Pakistan’s boisterous TV channels are loath to even mention competitors’ names. But efforts to curry favor with the military combined with commercial interests and petty personal issues between owners — Geo News is three times as popular as its closest competitor and attracts up to 70 percent of advertising revenue on news channels — seem to have trumped all previous restraint.

The vitriolic attacks on Geo and its parent company, the Jang Group, have increased with each passing day. One competitor devoted all its talk shows and 20 minutes of every hourly news bulletin for several days to Geo’s faults. Despite the veneer of discussing journalistic ethics, the underlying message was that accusations against a military agency were unacceptable.

Then the military moved in for the real kill. It petitioned Pakistan’s media regulators to ban Geo for defaming the military as well as its associated newspapers, Jang and The News. It also called for unprecedented criminal prosecution of Geo’s owners and journalists.

Cable operators were informally pressured to take Geo off the air. Demonstrations, often by militant religious parties, suddenly began springing up all over Pakistan in support of the I.S.I. and against Geo — probably the first time anyone in the world has rallied to defend an intelligence agency. Now even some mainstream political parties, including the one led by former cricket star Imran Khan, have raised the banner against Geo.

Did Geo make poor editorial decisions? Perhaps. Could it be sued for defamation for airing specific accusations, even by distressed family members, without proof? Possibly. Is the military’s reaction a vast overkill? Most definitely.

From his hospital bed, Mr. Mir has now also pointed his finger at the I.S.I. or elements within it. Suddenly, his credentials as a patriot are being called into question by Geo’s competitors. Mr. Mir has long been a controversial figure and is certainly no saint, but now there are explicit attacks on his character and even his most principled views.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, this naked attempt to suppress media dissent isn’t a sign that Pakistan’s security establishment is reasserting control over the media; rather it demonstrates the establishment’s crumbling control over political narratives and its increasingly desperate measures to put the genie back in the bottle.

But attempts to intimidate and muzzle Pakistan’s media are destined to be futile. When Pakistan’s previous military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, freed the electronic media from state-controlled monopoly in 2002, he scarcely could have imagined it would prove his own undoing five years later. Sure enough, his attempts to rein in an increasingly unruly media in 2007 only spurred greater defiance and dissent. The world had changed, technology provided alternative ways to access information, the public had found a voice. And within a year, he was forced from power.

The biggest loser in this sordid spectacle has been Pakistan’s media itself. Geo’s competitors and those journalists dissembling on the side of ethics while supporting the military’s hubris are being extremely short-sighted. Pakistan’s vibrant print media earned whatever freedom it has through a long process of standing up to despotic rulers rather than bowing down. Freedom of dissent for the electronic media won’t be presented on a platter; journalists will need to fight for it or risk suffering the same fate as Geo down the road.

At a time when all of Pakistan faces an existential threat from extremist groups, needless distractions and attacks on the free press are the last thing Pakistan needs from its army.

Hasan Zaidi is a Pakistani filmmaker and media analyst and a former Pakistan correspondent for NBC News.

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