Taking on the ISI
When a bomb was found under Hamid Mir’s car a few weeks ago, I thought it was a message that would never become a reality. Unfortunately, I was wrong and Hamid Mir was right. He lies in a bed today, weak and injured, struggling to survive the assassination attempt. After the attack, there is no escape for me except to admit that the threat to his life was genuine, as genuine as the bullets fired at him, which is a tragedy. In this tragedy we are all with him praying for his complete recovery. Within hours or maybe sooner, through his own statements and the stance of his family and colleagues in the media, it seems clear that most fingers are being pointed at only one institution: Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). At present we do not have enough evidence to support the accusation.
For a brief moment, let us suppose that the ISI is not involved in this assault. The situation, for me, is still shameful. It is shameful because the protectors, who wear uniform and take an oath to safeguard us from all enemies, are being nominated as perpetrators. It is shameful also because the divide between the civilian and military paradigm is so huge that, while both share the same country, they seem to be living on two different planets. It is shameful because the line between a foe and friend has become so blurry that friends can be mistaken for enemies and enemies for friends.
How low can the morale of a country be pulled down when one of our main news channels blames the head of its most powerful intelligence agency to step down as the prime suspect of a criminal investigation? How else can we define moral bankruptcy on both sides? I think there are two major reasons, if not more, for our belligerent reaction: first, there has never been an investigation in Pakistan in which criminals have been identified, prosecuted, tried, convicted and then punished. It is a free country nowadays, free to commit any crime and free of the fear of any legal retribution. The only time we have seen success in an inquiry and the judicial process is with the investigation on the assassination of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Karachi, when the State Department of the US took great interest in finding the killers.
Sometimes, on cases of national importance, we have insisted to form a judicial tribunal to help us identify the perpetrators, to understand the reasons for the crime and provide us with its recommendations to prevent such incidents in the future. This strategy has also failed. After months of interviews and hard work, either the report of such a commission is withheld, killing the purpose of its formation, or we realise that the people interviewed in the process did not cooperate, and the institutions thought to be involved in the activity did not comply with the inquiry. It may even be that the suggestions made by the panel will never be implemented and will be trashed in the garbage can as soon as they are released. In short, no one is made accountable or held responsible for these crimes. This uncertain situation creates a vacuum in society, an empty space where only conspiracy theories grow and, slowly, these unrealistic and delusional ideas possess the whole nation. Who can doubt that Pakistan is not possessed by them today?
Secondly, Pakistan has let some media outlets balloon way out of proportion in their size and influence. Under no circumstances, in my opinion, should the same group be allowed to run an electronic news channel and print a daily newspaper at the same time. I also doubt that one group should be permitted to print more than one newspaper even if they are published in different languages. If a news channel is better than others — more reliable and more entertaining — and has developed a good viewership, that success should be respected, encouraged and protected. However, the ability of one organisation to control all the media outlets from print to electronic news is not healthy for the country, nor is it healthy for the profession of journalism, freedom of expression or any constructive debate.
Their ability to own every source of news allows them to exert extraordinary authority on political governments and obtain all favours and state resources. Once they are ‘too big to fall’ they can also take on state institutions, including the military. Those state institutions or individuals that dare to resist and stand up against the tyranny of the media become a target themselves and are maligned and projected as enemies. We have all seen that happening in front of our eyes. This environment reeks of personal grudges and hidden agendas for more control and more power, which, instead of a healthy debate, leads us to chaos. Following in the footsteps of one corporation, others, in order to enjoy the same type of leverage, are also attempting to expand their ‘horizons’. Their rivalries and animosities with each other are not a secret for the public, adding further fuel to the fire.
In these circumstances, I believe that not only a proper investigation on the attack on Hamid Mir should be conducted with the same efficiency as it was done in the case of Daniel Pearl, but also its findings should be made public. At the same time, this incident, as sad as it is, may provide us a small window of opportunity to bring long awaited changes in the laws governing the media. The process can start with the parliamentary committee, which can call the owners, journalists, experts and lawyers to formulate a comprehensive reform package to stop the war in the media between one another and with other state enterprises.