Deadlines, headlines & red lines
ABRAR Tanoli. Ayub Khattak. Shan Dahar. Bakhtaj Ali. Razik Baloch. Almost no-one knows who these persons are, not even a very big chunk of Pakistan’s 18,000-strong community of working journalists. They were all working journalists who were killed in targeted attacks in the last 12 months. Three other media workers — Waqas Aziz, Khalid Khan and Ashraf Arain, non-journalists but media assistants — were also killed in the same period. They were working for various media groups and died in the line of duty. Also attacked were media houses — offices of Express, Nawa-i-Waqt and Aaj TV. There were protests everywhere against those who targeted these journalists and media houses. This unity in condemnation came from both the representative associations of working journalists and media owners.
But something curious has happened when arguably one of Pakistan’s most well-known journalist — Hamid Mir — last week joined a long list of hundreds of journalists who have been injured, assaulted, kidnapped, arrested, tortured and/or intimidated since 2000: a passionate war of words has broken out over the airwaves among various media groups on how to deal with the attack and even the otherwise pretty vocal community of working journalists have split down the middle in their strategy to respond to supporting Mir.
How did it come to this? It started with Mir’s brother Amir, himself a journalist working for the same media group Jang, was invited by Geo News to comment on the attack even as his better known sibling fought for his life in a hospital. On air live, Amir did not pull any punches in squarely laying the blame on ISI chief Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam and his colleagues for the murderous attack and made a coherent if not audacious speech in the framework of the civil-military equation. It all ballooned on from there as the focus of the coverage shifted from the incident to the accused. A fairly swift rebuttal of the allegation from the ISPR in defence of the ISI was all that was required for all the other channels to jump into the fray.
From then on there’s a clear position that Jang Group has taken, and more or less another one — driven by targeting of Geo TV — that some other channels have taken, with ARY and Express groups being pretty liberal in taking potshots at Geo for allegedly denigrating the armed forces and intelligence agencies. Such is the pitch of sound bites that principled positions have been lost to the hyperbole of hyper nationalism.
Even the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), already divided in three factions, has taken an astonishing position on the issue. Afzal Butt, who heads his faction of the PFUJ, told this writer on Monday that they cannot allow themselves “to be used as a platform” to malign the ISI or the army. “We stand by Hamid Mir and support his constitutional right to seek inquiry against those he suspects but as professionals we should be wary of becoming a party to someone’s personal grudge,” he said. “Supporting Hamid Mir should not mean being anti-armed forces.” There are opposing views. Rana Azeem, the president of another PFUJ faction, says they are opposed to all attacks against the media whatever the motive and whoever the attacker. “The attack on Hamid Mir is audacious. Whoever is allegedly involved in attacking him, irrespective of their rank or standing, should be investigated. We should trust the system to do that and should focus our efforts for now, as journalists, to demand and pursue justice,” he said. “Let’s deal with the culprits, whoever they are, when we find them.”
Despite the enormous goodwill he enjoys, Mir finds himself unwittingly the catalyst of a deepening division within the media ranks. “When Express media group office and its workers were attacked and killed, and others like Raza Rumi and Imtiaz Alam were attacked, they rightly raised a ruckus and demanded justice, as well as support from others. But when a Jang group journalist has been attacked likewise, where is the kind of support from Express for Jang that it sought from others?” asks Iqbal Khattak, the Peshawar-based Executive Director of Freedom Network, a media watchdog advocating for media safety. “There was a time in Pakistan when newspaper owners had a code of ethics that disallowed criticism against each other in each other’s publications. But the advent of real-time TV media has changed all that and we now actually find Jang group, Express group and ARY running active campaigns against each other.”
Rana Jawad, who manages Geo TV operations from Islamabad, insists they are not running a campaign against anyone. “We’ve given views of all sides, including that of the family of Hamid Mir as well as that of the armed forces and intelligence agencies. So where’s the bias? It’s not us running a campaign against anyone whereas there is a clear campaign against us by some media houses with thinly disguised leanings,” he told this writer. “I would say that there is a lack of clarity within [media] ranks on how to deal with pressure from certain quarters and how to prevent us from being manipulated into agendas of non-media forces.”
Media activist and senior journalist Mazhar Abbas says the media sector must take urgent steps to stem the crisis of credibility engulfing it by putting an immediate end to criticism of each other by media houses. “Who do you think benefits from divisions within media owners, media practitioners and government institutions about the attacks against journalists and how to deal with them?” he asks. “Our common enemies, of course.” Abbas says there are precedents of dealing with such attacks.
“In the 1980s three journalists were killed within days of each other and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors and the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) went on a strike, no newspapers were published in the country and the government was forced to speed up investigation and prosecution. In the 1990s, when six newspapers were banned, we again announced a strike and the government immediately restored the papers. That’s what we need to do now. The APNS, the Pakistan Broadcasters Association and the PFUJ need to stop fighting, appoint a Joint Action Committee and unite on the single agenda of security for journalists, otherwise our enemies will win. It will also solve the current needless media bickering on non-issues.”
Winning the media enemies indeed are. Scores of journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000. As media fights its own demons, others pick off media targets one by one. And who’s killing them? Many know and don’t speak out as Mir and his family did but Reporters Without Borders said in a recent report that the Taliban and intelligence services are the biggest predators of media freedoms in Pakistan. The Saleem Shahzad Commission agreed somewhat. And now the Hamid Mir Commission announced by the prime minister has the opportunity to find some answers. But don’t hold your breath.
Adnan Rehmat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a media analyst and development communications specialist.