Attack in Karachi
The attack on TV talk show host Hamid Mir is, at root, about one man’s fight for life, but it also raises several questions that haunt journalists. While the individual case of Hamid Mir might be settled by the judicial commission, and the perpetrators of the attack might be arrested, there will still remain the question of whether the attackers achieved what it is presumed they set out to: concealing an unpalatable truth.
It can safely be predicted that the truth which Mir was bringing to light was so inconvenient to someone, that the murder attempt was made. The victim’s brother has blamed the ISI. That has led to a focus on the effect of the attempt on civil-military relations. That obscures the first question that crops up, which is whether Mir knew what he was getting into when he entered journalism. As his father was the journalism teacher and columnist Waris Mir, he probably did, but the average entrant does not. By and large, those who come into journalism are humanities students, and expect a nonviolent career, and not expecting to show more physical courage than a cost accountant.
However, because they come across unpalatable truths, they sometimes have to disclose them.
Individual journalists have to do this because they work for a commercial organization. That commercial organization is in the business of publishing information, and customers fork over hard-earned money on the understanding that the information provided will be accurate.
If it is to be assumed that Mir is frightened into silence, is there any guarantee that his competitors will also be? Or will they be driven by a spirit of competition into covering the story? In the face of this competition will Mir be able to continue his silence? It should be assumed that there will be other channels, and probably websites, that will try and compete, not just to win customers, but because individuals are displaying bravado. People do not come into journalism because they are particularly courageous, but soon find that it is occasionally required, and its possession is an advantage. The only body that can keep a story out of print is an advertiser. This is why the media are criticized for being tools of the corporate world. That is why the media in Pakistan gained freedom with privatization. When the government controlled so many major economic enterprises, it was by far the biggest advertiser. As it is, even when shorn of all the state-owned enterprises, the government is the largest single advertiser, and thus in a position to make its presence felt.
One problem that the government and now major corporations have with the media, is that it is obliged to show a mirror to society. There is the example of the National Press Trust, in which the Ayub government ‘nationalised’ newspapers. But when the media was given its own head, these organs were wiped out. Similarly, PTV was much healthier when it had a monopoly on television. In an era of competition, it is not possible to hide anything.
Another ‘problem’ that any organization faces in trying to hide the truth is that the electronic media is now very powerful. Because ideas are at a premium, any report appearing in print will be followed by the electronic media, and vice versa. Thus any report by Mir will not be suppressed by this attack.
That is one of the safeguards of the media: that other media outlets will go after the story. Another factor is that someone very often has an interest in giving a story publicity. Indeed, it is often that party’s interest which makes information available. Missing persons, an issue which Mir covered vigorously, is a good example. Those who have made persons go missing would like it kept quiet. The families of those persons would like information about their fate to be widely disseminated. Then there are whistleblowers; insiders who feel abuse should be exposed, and it should be remembered they may have a vested interest. If one media outlet does not publish, that person will take his or her information to another. Sometimes, the information will be reported because it is in the legal domain. The missing persons issue has depended a lot on legal proceedings being reported.
The attack on Hamid Mir must thus be seen as profitless to the attacker. However, it does not mean that the attacker might not suffer from the delusion that plugging one leak might mean plugging all. That shows that a government organization might well be responsible, and thus the ISI, which has been accused by Mir’s brother, himself a journalist, is not rendered guiltless. In fact, the best defence of the ISI has got to be the claim that it is not as incompetent as the attackers were.
That assumes that this attempt failed. But what if it succeeded? What if the purpose was not to murder him, but to frighten him? It might work, but only until the story goes to someone else. It might see Mir jump into the fray. Even if he doesn’t, his channel has many other newsmen in search of a story. There is nothing to give a journalist any privilege ahead of other citizens, but he too is a citizen, and thus entitled to the protection of the state. The enquiry into the attack must continue to its logical conclusion, which is to uncover the attackers.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org