On the assassination of journalism
My father, Mansoor Kaiser, was a journalist and I was never particularly great at anything except maybe cricket. I had a general knack for putting words together in an order that made just enough sense, and felt pride in my father’s hard-truth writings wrapped in black silk satire. I cared about facts and analysis, and word documents with black and white textual feelings and emotions abounded. That was about it; content did not matter. And then I started writing. Very graciously, I still write, almost strictly for pleasure and for the intrinsic value of standing on the proverbial soapbox that is this column. However, after one year of this, I worry, like many journalists, that this field is now plagued with the virus of ‘blood flu’. The changing model of journalism is creating a cultural genre that should not scare us all. That being said, the shift to journalism that takes risks and is careful in its creation is compromised. This is sadly the case in Pakistan and proponents of properly-styled, traditional journalism think that the world we have taken to creates so much discomfort that it may soon cease to exist, all at the hands of people who really just could not care less about news. The culprit almost singlehandedly responsible for destroying skilled, artful journalism is nothing but our paranoia. Selfless journalism is under threat in Pakistan, and when its fate lies in the suffocating hands of some unknown factors like militants or contractual terrorists, there is little we can do to revive it.
Television anchor and journalist Hamid Mir, known for his criticism of the government, survived an attempt on his life. He claimed on his television show that he had received numerous threats to his life recently. There have been earlier failed assassination attempts on other television anchors and journalists, including Raza Rumi, and mysterious, fatal attempts on journalists like Saleem Shehzad who was found dead after going missing. A section of the journalist fraternity has said they believe Hamid Mir’s assassination attempt is likely connected with his work as a journalist and more so with articles in which he expressed his strong political viewpoints and uncompromising reviews on television programmes. Luckily, Hamid Mir survived an attempt on his life previously as well when a remote control bomb was placed under his car. He had also received numerous death threats. The media reports that before and after the assassination attempt, Mir had harshly criticised Pakistan’s security forces, accusing them of planning and working to silence him. He had apparently foretold his own assassination in a letter to his family and to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) with a plea that, “When finally I am killed, it will be the establishment that kills me.” For its part, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) administration points to a foreign, third hand hell bent on discrediting the ISI and the government. Premier Sharif’s government has done what it does best, expressed outrage, ordered a full investigation and appointed a judicial commission to investigate the attack. Yet it conveniently forgets that the subcommittee recently formed to look into the grievances of journalists has been largely hopeless and hapless. No one knows whether it exists, how to reach it, what it does or what it came up with as recommendations to protect journalists.
Hamid Mir provides a profile of ambitious journalists at an interesting time in Pakistan’s history, when democracy has been restored and media freedom has been prevalent for almost a decade. As Pakistan’s society is in transition towards a stable democracy, its journalists are balancing the roles that they have been socialised in with those of a free press, but how do journalists operate in this situation? How do the dangers and fears that they face impact upon the ‘truths’ that they construct? How are journalistic notions of truth and objectivity understood and kept at the core of news correspondence? How does news control impact upon the lives of journalists and, as a consequence, on their work and conflict in general, given the pressures on reporting in the current political circumstances and how that affects journalists and journalism? We are all consumers of information, consumers of news, and we are all busy, motivated people in some form or another. Our attention spans rival those of goldfish. One more week of breaking news and we are done. One more journalist perishes and we are done. A few more years, a few less Hamid Mirs, and we are done.
Hamid Mir and many others have spilt their blood in the struggle to speak their minds and uphold the truth, and none should shy away from this open invitation to selfless and determined journalism. This rapidly spinning world does not want us un-bagging a curled up newspaper and perusing it from front to back every morning. This world demands hard, true, and actual facts in less time, with less content to filter in order to get the information it needs. Journalists are not dying due to a lack of information; the content is there waiting to be told but we are too preoccupied with information we do not need. It is depressing to see how ‘news’ channels produce mind-melting garbage material that is not news at all.
The power of the truth to set free the masses from injustice, indifference and apathy is what awakens public outcry and churns out civil and political action for human rights. Journalists, leaders and speakers frequently give voice to the long oppressed aspirations of the indigenous people that provoke violent retaliation and threats. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and broadcasters. It is dangerous, deadly and difficult to expose the injustice and exploitation of the people — it is no fun to receive death threats for speaking and writing the truth, nor is the culture of impunity that allows the killers to go free. Great are the riches at the end of the journalism rainbow for new aspirants in Pakistan if they can defeat this fierce opposition. The forces of gate-keeping and a variety of constraints on journalists adversely affect professionalism in journalism and contribute to the disillusionment of an increasing number of professional journalists. While political criticism is very popular with viewers and readers of newspapers, it has attracted convenient ambiguity whether as a form of journalistic practice or as part of a critical, public discourse. I argue that, at a time of dramatic changes occurring in the newspapers and television industries, there is a need to develop a better understanding of the form of criticism and role of professional journalism.
Journalists are engaged in a technologically inspired jurisdictional struggle for control of political communication with politicians, the public and other non-journalists. After the demise of military rule, the relationship between the media and politics in Pakistan has to adjust to the conditions of democratic politics and a competitive communication environment. Both journalists and politicians should understand their relationship from the past and present, and what orientations govern their day-to-day interactions. The political communication culture seems to be a loose knitted network between two sets of actors, which continues to shape political communication breeding ‘deals’ and even corruption that seriously undermines the independence of political journalism, making it easier for political actors to exercise control over the public agenda.