Friday, June 20, 2014

Games of violence in Lahore

Eight innocent lives were lost on Tuesday in Lahore as a result of a police attack on the residence of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) leader Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri. Apparently, the police was sent there to remove barricades but what ensued was a bloody battle. The scenes on our television screens looked right out of some autocratic state where state brutality is a norm. One could hardly believe they were being beamed live from the middle of Lahore, the capital of Punjab.

According to the the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), “This is not the first incident in which the lack of police training and their capacity for crowd control without violence has been badly exposed. It is not likely to be the last. In fact, Tuesday’s incident makes it abundantly clear that there are no bounds to police brutality in action against political rivals of the parties in power.”

Police brutality is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan but firing live bullets on protesters, no matter how unruly they are, is not how democratic governments go about it. The order to remove those barriers reportedly came directly from the Punjab government, but in trying to show Dr Qadri and his supporters who the real ‘boss’ is, the Punjab police went overboard and ended up spilling innocent blood.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was at a loss for words at his press conference. The responsibility now lies with him and his government to actually punish the culprits. The Punjab government and CM Shahbaz Sharif are known for coming down hard on their political rivals but one cannot comprehend how they could have given orders to shoot protesters. Thus, it is very important to find out who ordered that the shots be fired.

There are many who think that moves were afoot to destabilise the Nawaz Sharif regime way before this incident took place. When the likes of the Chaudhry brothers, Sheikh Rasheed and others joined the Qadri bandwagon, it seemed like a conspiracy hatched to either oust the Sharif government or weaken it. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri is known to be an establishment stooge, who has quite a following in this country despite being a Canadian citizen. There was already tension between the military establishment and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but the North Waziristan operation and an alleged deal on the Musharraf trial resolved the issue to a certain extent. Just when it seemed that the military and Sharif were on the same page again on these issues, the Lahore incident took place.

While there is no justification whatsoever for the deaths of innocent people, the timing is suspect. The military has certainly gained popularity because of the North Waziristan operation. The entire nation seems to be behind the armed forces in their fight against the Pakistani Taliban. Some analysts believe that the Lahore incident will either be used to cut Mian Nawaz Sharif to size by turning him into a lame-duck prime minister or it will pave the way for a technocratic setup. Unless the Sharif government deals with this issue properly and refrains from violence when Dr Qadri arrives in Pakistan, it will lose the game.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, June 06, 2014

A self-imploding media

The recent media wars in Pakistan have once again exposed the myth of ‘freedom of media’ in the country.

It all began with the attempt on the life of the country’s most famous anchorperson, Hamid Mir. The allegations made by Mir’s family against the ISI chief and the decision by Geo to repeatedly air them for the next few hours led to an unprecedented backlash against the country’s largest media group. One can have a debate on the merits and demerits of Geo’s coverage but since the Jang Group has already apologised for its “excessive, distressful and emotional” coverage, it would be an exercise in futility. The real, and more pertinent, debate should be about the way other media houses have dealt with the issue because the aftermath of Mir’s attack has left the Pakistani media in tatters.

According to Amnesty International, “Up to 80 percent of Jang Media Group’s distribution in print and on the airwaves has been disrupted by media industry bodies, apparently under the orders of the Pakistani military.” It is unfortunate that many people have commended this move instead of condemning it. What is more distressing, nay disgusting, is how other media houses have joined the ‘Ban Geo’ bandwagon instead of realising the potential damage such a move could have on the media itself. In their bid to please the military establishment, several media houses, journalists and analysts have outdone themselves.

The way some news channels and newspapers have ripped Jang/Geo apart is a classic example of hara-kiri. The Jang Media Group is no saint when it comes to following media ethics but no amount of corporate greed can justify the disgraceful behavior by its rival media groups during the recent crisis.

Amnesty International further added that several journalists from the Jang Group have “received daily threats and harassment by unknown individuals by phone and in person. Many dare not enter their offices or identify themselves as belonging to Geo TV or other Jang Media Group outlets for fear of being attacked.” Jang’s resident editor in Multan was brutally attacked last week. At a time like this, the journalist community should have shown some spine and stood up in solidarity with their comrades. Instead, some of them have justified the attacks on their fellow journalists while others remained silent at the plight of those working for the Jang Group. Even more shocking is how some well-respected senior journalists have turned this incident into an issue of Jang/Geo’s monopoly in the Pakistani media. Do they not realise that if the largest media house loses this ‘war’, the media will be the biggest loser in all this because no one would dare cross any ‘red lines’ again.

A practical civil war has started within the media — something even those who started this campaign against Jang/Geo could not have envisaged themselves. Some say it was bound to happen; the media thought it was too powerful and could not be taken to task for anything. Well, the military establishment and its cronies have shown us how the media can be cut to size. Delusions of grandeur and race for ratings have finally set the Pakistani media on the path to self-implosion. Let’s hope better sense prevails before it is too late.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Chance to reboot ties

Nawaz Sharif's first meeting with Narendra Modi sparked censure in Pakistan but dialogue shouldn't remain hostage to old rhetoric

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not ruin Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony by unpleasant or embarrassing statements about UN resolutions or jugular veins. But India's Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was not so polite. She focused squarely on the Mumbai terror attack and demanded a swift trial of the seven Pakistanis accused of orchestrating it. Sharif was risking brutal censure back home for not mentioning the 'K' word even as Singh was playing to the gallery. Should Nawaz have accepted the invitation in the first place if the outcome was going to be so one-sided?

The perennial naysayers are already shaking their heads in disgust: Nawaz foolishly went the extra mile and Modi brutally stopped him in his tracks. Nawaz expressed a desire to move forward unconditionally and stressed the importance of trade and people-to-people contacts but Modi trotted out the usual mantra of terrorism-related conditionalities. A leap from Nawaz and not even a forward step from Modi.

But is this the real picture? What happened behind the scenes? How is the public posture of each different from their perception of the ground realities articulated in their hour-long talk? Surely, the official press release of South Block is not the full picture.

Nawaz was clear from day one that he would accept the invitation to attend the swearing-in of India's newly elected Prime Minister. He deliberately left the announcement to be made a little late in order to avoid controversy. According to veteran journalist Najam Sethi, Nawaz did not seek the military's permission; he only informed them. He got a brief from the Foreign Office but not from the ISI. National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office advised him to attend the swearing-in and banquet and return the same day without a bilateral meeting. Nawaz knew the brief included input from the military. The brass was okay as long as he did not commit himself unequivocally to anything concrete in the bilateral meeting. They want him to do it in a structured way later. When he saw the brief, he knew exactly what it was.

Army chief General Raheel Sharif met Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, on Sunday to discuss these issues. The general told the prime minister's brother that since Mian Sahib did not take brief from us, we are briefing you instead. The chief minister was told that on the India front, the military wants the PM to go slow. Despite a clear message from the establishment, Nawaz Sharif decided to do things on his own terms. "He has put his neck on the line by stressing unconditional talks and if the Indians keep on harping about pre-conditions, then the potential magic of this moment will be lost," says Sethi.

Journalist Ejaz Haider thinks Modi has played a smart hand, luring Nawaz in and extending hospitality before moving in and delivering a jab. "Sharif fell for it and was felled by it because he genuinely sought this opportunity to make some headway. But this was a miscalculation. Notice the contrast: While Modi presented his demands and nearly threw the dialogue process back to the pre-Thimphu period, Sharif avoided a meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, thinking that would vitiate the atmosphere," says Haider. None of this would have happened, Haider believes, if Nawaz had sent the speaker of the National Assembly instead of going himself to make some kind of history.

Others feel that by not talking about Kashmir in his press conference and not meeting Kashmiri separatists, Nawaz has sent a strong signal to the military establishment and Pakistan-based Kashmiri jihadi groups. Meeting Kashmiri separatists right after a Modi win would have been a political faux pas. "Mian Sahib perhaps realises that Pakistan is operating on a thin goodwill margin with India and the rest of the world thanks to the shenanigans of his country's security establishment and, therefore, didn't want to squander an opportunity to at least seek a breakthrough," says Daily Times columnist Mohammad Taqi. All things considered, the meeting is a baby step and not a giant diplomatic leap forward.

According to insiders, Nawaz told his Indian counterpart in their bilateral meeting that there was no point in putting pre-conditions to a dialogue or raking up the past or indulging in a blame game, and that both should look to the future and how to smoothen out the bumps on the highway. He told Modi that he did not give Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) - new name for MFN status - to the Congress so that it would not be exploited by it in the elections against BJP. Nawaz also talked of demilitarising Siachen, opening up the visa regime and playing cricket. Most important, he asked for a vigorous back-channel on Kashmir.

Mian sahib's diplomatic instinct seems right. Bringing up old baggage at an ice-breaking event could have entailed turbulence on Nawaz's maiden peace flight. The prime minister will, indeed, come under pressure from religious and political groups that shriek in chorus with the Pakistan Army because keeping the conflict with India alive is their, not Pakistan's, raison d'etre. "Mian sahib would be well advised to look over his shoulder as another Kargil, Mumbai or even October 11, 1999 is not beyond those who are ratcheting up jingoism in Pakistan by the minute. He has his work cut out for him at home, not in Delhi," says Taqi.

Secretary General of the South Asian Free Media Association Imtiaz Alam hailed Nawaz's decision to visit India. "It was a goodwill visit. Sharif is trying to pick up the thread from 1999 by referring again and again to the Lahore Declaration and his understanding with Vajpayee," says Alam. In February 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan aboard the maiden bus service between the two countries. The visit was seen as an important breakthrough following nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan in 1998. Sharif and Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration, a bilateral agreement, which was ratified by Indian and Pakistani parliaments. The military establishment was not happy with the pro-peace moves of the Nawaz government and tried to sabotage it through the Kargil war. Tensions between Nawaz and then army chief General Pervez Musharraf escalated following the misadventure; not only did it jeopardise the peace process, it also paved the way for the ouster of the Nawaz government through a military coup in October 1999.

By visiting Vajpayee during his recent Delhi visit, Nawaz has once again reiterated his commitment to peace with India. He feels that the BJP and Modi will subscribe to the Vajpayee legacy. Imtiaz Alam thinks it was a good time to start the composite dialogue but it appears Delhi will still wait for Pakistan to address its concerns on terrorism. By inviting all SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, Modi has shown keenness about the region; the same vision is shared by Nawaz. "The situation demands that talks should not be held hostage to the core issues of either side. It remains to be seen whether Modi will outgrow his hawkish image or get bogged down in a proxy war in Afghanistan," says Alam. Many in Pakistan are apprehensive that Modi may be more aggressive in Afghanistan.

Political commentator Umair Javed feels there is a shared understanding of domestic compulsions that each leader faces. By accepting the invitation along with other SAARC leaders, Nawaz recognised the Indians' somewhat superior role as a regional authority and the need to mend fences even if it is for purely selfish reasons, that is economic growth and civilian supremacy. Javed thinks it is encouraging that Nawaz and his party heads have charted an independent course by ignoring the antagonism of both the military and the hard right-wing forces such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. "The idea of trade would be central to their understanding of growth and Indian states with an advantage in manufacturing, such as Gujarat, would gain considerably, as would Punjab in Pakistan as a market full of consumers," says Javed. He says both Nawaz and Modi have similar core support bases-the aspirational middle class and the businesses -and hence recognise the need to enhance economic growth of a particular nature. On trade, there is already an agreement and action plan, which the Pakistanis were about to announce, but kept pending, to signal a good start with Modi. Both Nawaz and Modi are powerful prime ministers but it remains to be seen whether they can deliver on their promises.

(Originally published in India Today)

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Shining

Narendra Modi won the Indian elections with a landslide victory. It was certainly quite a disappointment for many around the world to see a man accused of being complicit in a communal pogrom all set to become prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. Some Pakistanis tweeted critically about Modi’s win but were told to mind their own business and look at the mess Pakistan is in.

When Sherry Rehman and some other Pakistanis raised a question about the number of Muslim MPs in the newly elected Lok Sabha, they received flak for it. A lot of Indian Muslims felt offended that Pakistanis were showing ‘concern’ about them while many others ‘reminded’ Pakistanis of the treatment meted out to the minorities in our country. Those tweets were not condescending but were in fact coming from people who keep an eye on international politics and comment on it.

If you look at the tweets from the Indian Twitterati, many of them consider it their birthright to comment on anything and everything related to Pakistan. Many of those tweets are in fact condescending, mocking, patronising and sometimes downright offensive and/or abusive. Liberal and progressive Pakistanis have never stopped Indians from commenting on Pakistan even if it is on internal matters that should not be India’s concern at all. So when Pakistanis commented on Modi’s win — something being discussed all over the world — and were critical, many Indians just could not take what they dish out on a regular basis.

Yes, Pakistan is in a mess but many of us keep raising our voice against the military establishment’s flawed policies, against terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), etc. We speak out against our own state’s backing of jihadi terrorist outfits. We speak up for the rights of the Baloch, Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians, etc. We do not condone the way our minorities are being treated and call out our state for its failure to protect its own citizens. We stick out our necks when we highlight atrocities committed by state and non-state actors. We can be killed for doing so but at least we do not sweep such issues under the rug.

Shaheed Salmaan Taseer did not back down on the issue of Aasia Bibi and the blasphemy laws till his last breath even though he knew it could get him killed, which it eventually did. Sherry Rehman has never shied away from raising the issue of misuse of the blasphemy laws and the plight of minorities even though her life is under threat. My friend Raza Rumi was almost killed by the LeJ because he spoke up for the Shias and against terrorism. Secretary General SAFMA Imtiaz Alam was attacked by ISI goons because he spoke the truth about 26/11 on national TV. Many of us are called traitors and Indian agents because we are pro-peace and question our state’s policies.

As a Pakistani who has admired Indian secularism and its strong democratic traditions, Modi’s win is an abomination and everyone has the right to comment on it.

It is a well-established fact that Modi’s politics is of communal exclusion and discrimination. There can be no denying that the Indian polity’s swing to Modi is a cataclysmic indictment of ‘Secular India’. For every progressive Indian, it should have been a day of reckoning when Modi was elected but it was disturbing to see that most of them were not even willing to admit that something did go wrong. The harsh reality is that both India and Pakistan can be equally exploitative, oppressive and bigoted societies. A progressive society is not just built on high economic growth but on values of secularism, rights of minorities, inclusiveness and a truly pluralistic social fabric.

This column is not meant to be a rant to vilify India but a call to ask for introspection and an honest conversation with the progressive people of India.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Patriotism under threat

The top journalists and rights activists of Pakistan are accused of treason in a petition before the Supreme Court of Pakistan for allegedly undermining the message of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Iqbal, the Two-Nation Theory, the ideology of Pakistan and Islam ‘at the behest of India’.

The petition was filed by notorious conspiracy theorist Zaid Hamid. Those accused are Hamid Mir, Najam Sethi, Imtiaz Alam, Asma Jahangir, Nusrat Javeed, Sirmed Manzoor, Marvi Sirmed, Beena Sarwar and Hassan Nisar, among others. While no one needs a certificate of patriotism, it is important to know why these people are considered ‘dangerous’ by zealots, bigots and self-proclaimed ‘patriots’.

Hamid Mir recently survived an assassination attempt. He had received threats from the ISI. Najam Sethi has been under threat from both state and non-state actors for his brave and rational political analysis. Asma Jahangir has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy and has consequently received threats from various quarters over the decades. Beena Sarwar has come under fire for her association with ‘Aman ki Asha’, a peace-with-India initiative by the Jang Group. Imtiaz Alam has been attacked in the past for raising his voice against 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Alam, Nusrat Javeed and Sirmed Manzoor are office-bearers of South Asia Free Media Association and are hence labelled ‘traitors’ because of SAFMA’s advocacy for regional peace. Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist and peacenik, is vocal against both state and non-state actors.

Such a preposterous petition should have been mocked out of court. Instead, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the ridiculous charges made by a man of dubious credentials by actually admitting the petition. Zaid Hamid was accused by his former assistant, Emaad Khalid, of instigating mutiny in the lower ranks of the military despite being on the payroll of the ISI. Khalid provided detailed evidence to this effect, yet no action was taken against Hamid.

It seems that being a peacenik in Pakistan is highly treasonous. SAFMA as an organisation and other individuals propagating peace with India are being accused of ‘treason’ by the likes of Zaid Hamid precisely because of this reason. Labelling someone as an ‘Indian agent’ is nothing new but in a country where journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and other progressive people can be killed in the name of religion and/or national security, is highly dangerous.

On Wednesday — the same day this petition was admitted — human rights defender and lawyer Rashid Rehman was gunned down in Multan. He was defending a blasphemy accused. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Rehman was “openly threatened by prosecution lawyers in the Multan District Prison in the presence of a judge ... The judge, it was reported, did not take any notice of threats issued to Rashid in his presence”.

By admitting Mr Hamid’s petition, has the honourable Supreme Court seemingly legitimised incitement to violence? Or is the court seeking an opportunity to scold and mock the petitioner before throwing the petition out? The journalists in the line of fire are not amused. But they are certainly itching to use the SC platform to enlarge the debate on what constitutes national interest, what is the ideology of Pakistan and who is a traitor and who a patriot. About time these issues were openly debated.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Write at your own peril

Pakistani journalists are no strangers to danger. In the old days, they faced threats from the government, military establishment, political parties, goons, mafia and odd militant groups but now things have changed for the worse. From their phones being tapped by state agencies to their movements being monitored both by state and non-state actors, not only are their lives devoid of any privacy but also those who have received threats from either state or non-state actors, have to constantly look over their shoulder. When journalists become news themselves, it shows how precarious the situation really is.

We have known for a long time now that non-state actors have become as powerful as state actors. The Express Media Group was targeted by the Taliban twice in the span of a few months. The state was not willing to guarantee its security so the group's liberal English daily, Express Tribune, had to change its policy. It stopped criticising the Taliban.

March 28 further proved the power and outreach of militant groups. Journalist Raza Rumi was attacked in the city of Lahore. For many of us, it was an attack that was too close to home. Raza's survival was a miracle. His 25-year-old driver lost his life while his guard was injured. Punjab Police recently arrested six suspects belonging to the banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) who confessed to their involvement in Raza's assassination attempt. Raza is not sure if they will be prosecuted and sentenced.

On the heels of Raza's attack, Secretary General, South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) and TV anchor Imtiaz Alam received a death threat. The briefing he got from intelligence and police sources was that he was among the top few whose life is under threat from extremists. Alam has been incarcerated under both military and civilian regimes in the past. His role in SAFMA, and his pursuit of peace between Pakistan and India and regional cooperation, has not been seen in good light by the establishment, nor is he liked by Pakistani militant groups. "I've been attacked several times in the past but I did not let these threats come in the way of my profession. Being vocal and straightforward has become troublesome these days," says Alam.

On April 19, Hamid Mir was shot six times in the heart of Karachi. He survived, and is recovering in a hospital. Hamid Mir works for Jang Group, the largest media group in the country, and hosts a top-rated talk show 'Capital Talk' on Geo, Pakistan's largest private TV channel. According to his family, friends and colleagues, he was under threat from the ISI. His brother, Amir Mir, made this public on Geo the day his brother was attacked. Following these allegations against the ISI, Geo and Jang Group have come under fire from the military and rival media houses. In any other country, the security of journalists would never have been a divisive issue, but in Pakistan, rival media groups - including Express - started a vicious campaign against him.

Some people believe that the recent attacks on journalists will pave the way for more censorship. Renowned journalist Najam Sethi thinks it is not necessarily true. He feels the media in every country has always exercised a degree of self-censorship in matters relating to their respective intelligence agencies but in Pakistan, a small section of the English media has often crossed such 'red lines'.

Alam recently resigned from Express News after he was asked to do a pre-recorded show instead of a live one, with guests who are known to be at the forefront of a campaign against Hamid Mir and Geo. "Either I stood with Hamid Mir, a victim of press freedom, raised the banner of freedom of expression and followed my conscience, or became subject of infighting between two media houses. I chose to resign in favour of the security of journalists and freedom of expression," says Alam. He believes that every media house and journalist should unite in the face of such adversity, because sooner or later, they too will come under attack from those who want the media to follow diktats of hardliners.

The choice for Pakistani journalists is limited: Silence, leave the media industry in the country, toe the line of the powers-that-be or do your work honestly, but at a very heavy price-the risk of losing your life. The truth is that unless the state itself does not come out in full support of the media, journalists can only do so much.

(Originally published in India Today)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Interview with Imtiaz Alam on media-military conflict

Veteran journalist and SAFMA secretary-general Imtiaz Alam says journalists must unite to systemically address the problems of press freedom in Pakistan

Mehmal Sarfraz: Is it correct to say that the media is under attack and those who target journalists operate with impunity?

Imtiaz Alam:
The media is indeed under attack. According to SAFMA’s South Asia Media Monitor, Pakistan was among the top five countries deemed dangerous for journalists. Last year, 10 journalists were killed in Pakistan while in the last four months, five journalists have already been killed. The complexity of the threat to journalists makes it worse. You don’t know who will target you. Sometimes you can be a better judge of the attackers knowing your own situation, while sometimes you are caught in the crossfire.

The extremist forces have expanded their tentacles everywhere. They now have mass pockets and a wider support-base. They have become more resourceful, more organized, and have efficient logistics. They now have the capacity to monitor the movement of their targets and can get away with their mission without any trouble.

In another dimension, just like the troublesome civil-military relations, media-military relations have also been quite problematic. Due to prolonged military rules, the army increasingly got into the civilian business and desperately made efforts to establish its influence in various civilian sectors including the media. The more it was emphasized that the armed forces are also the defenders of ideological frontiers, the greater was its intervention in the ideological, cultural and policy spheres, marginalizing the role of the civil society and civilian institutions.

MS: The attack on Hamid Mir came after an assassination attempt on Raza Rumi. Has the media – as a profession and industry – responded to these brutal attacks in the manner they should have?

IA:
I think at the level of working journalists, the solidarity remained firm, but due to the rivalries among media houses, a sad situation emerged. When Raza Rumi was attacked, it became the fight of Express alone and when Hamid Mir was attacked, it became the concern of Geo, while the others either kept quiet or launched a counter-campaign on one pretext or the other.

MS: Why are the calls for media unity finding no supporters among the owners of the media houses?

IA:
I think primarily these are conflicts of interest among various competing media groups which are exploited by the powers-that-be.

We all know the penetration and presence of the supra state in the media. After the Kargil war, the Pakistani military establishment realized the crucial role of private media channels, so General Musharraf opened the electronic media to the private sector and subsequently various intelligence agencies bought over many journalists and owners to serve their purpose. Moreover, as conflict and security issues became more important and dominated the media landscape, it was necessary for the media to have access to information in spheres that were previously a monopoly of the armed forces. The more the media got engaged with the security establishment, the greater it was co-opted by the powerful institutions.

MS: What steps should be taken by media and journalist bodies against the growing number of attacks on media freedom?

IA:
We have no weapon other than our unity and steadfastness in the face of a violent adversary. Our major concern should be freedom of expression and security of our colleagues in the profession regardless of their cliques, ideologies, or media affiliations.

MS: Have you found the response of the government adequate? Could it have treated the matter in a different way?

IA:
I think the information shared by Hamid Mir with his colleagues and family members regarding those whom he suspected to be his would-be killers was shocking for the government. It was not less than a bombshell because it is very rare that the victim survives or names our prime intelligence agency. It brought the Jang group into conflict with the security establishment, which reacted very sharply and mobilized its forces within the media to counter Geo/Jang.

MS: Is accusing the ISI on national television detrimental to national security as alleged by some TV show hosts and writers?

IA:
I think it was in the heat of the moment after the unexpected attack on their ace anchor that the Jang group overreacted. The knee-jerk reaction followed statements by those who were informed by Hamid Mir reportedly about his would-be killers.

Soon the Jang group realized and came under counter-pressure, but it happens in the media. Sometimes the media overreacts, and sometimes it takes a certain issue in good stride.

Soon they realized their mistake and went on the back foot, but it provided an excuse to the rival groups to settle their scores with them. It is quite obvious that the agency that came under attack also mobilized its friends in the media to make it look like an attack on national security and national institutions. It did not serve the interest of the victim and his case. Nor did it augur well for the ISI.

I feel the necessity of having some kind of a liaison body to help address such issues that bring the media and the armed forces in conflict. Lack of transparency and inaccessibility do not leave room for damage control. Lately, the ISPR took a reasonable position by showing the army’s willingness to cooperate in the investigation and take a legal course against its vilification, but the armed forces and intelligence agencies must be sensitized about the Johannesburg Principles of freedom of expression. There should be areas where the criticism of the business of the armed forces should be permissible publicly, and other areas that should be discussed so openly.

MS: Tell us why you resigned from the Express group?

IA:
I have been working quite well for the last few months, both as an anchor and analyst, in a talk show I had designed and planned. I had full editorial independence and I was professionally facilitated by my friend Yousaf Baig Mirza. There were some problems of intervention by the management that adversely affected my original team, but it went well more or less.

Suddenly, the Hamid Mir issue emerged and I could not condone or become part of the policy of Express media group, which launched a vilification campaign. My argument was that it was Express yesterday, it is Geo today and it could be Express again tomorrow. Therefore, such a policy would undermine the security of journalists not only in Express but also in every other media organization. And at the same time, it would negate the freedom of expression.

When I planned a program on Hamid Mir, they wanted to – for the first time – pre-censor my program Acha Lagay Bura Lagay asking me to pre-record it instead of allowing me to go live. At the same time, the group had invited those who are champions of mudslinging. Therefore, I decided to quit.

By setting this example, I tried to encourage others to take a principled stand in the best interest of our profession and the solidarity of our community.

MS: Will the judicial probe commission deliver on its mandate?

IA:
It depends on the mandate and the scope of its investigation. If Hamid Mir’s allegations are substantial and there is some concrete evidence, it will turn into a test case for civil-military relations in Pakistan.

I would advise both sides to allow due process without further fuelling the tug of war that is dominating the media these days. The ISI and the armed forces should not be vilified nor its personnel be prejudged. Even if somebody from the agency did threaten Hamid Mir, it should be taken as an irresponsible act and the whole institution should not be prejudged on the basis of an individual act. It is possible that some other mischievous elements might have exploited the ongoing tension between Hamid Mir and security agencies. But these are all speculations and no investigation can be premised on hearsay. Let this case provide us good lessons and help evolve certain mechanisms that could pre-empt such unfortunate situations.

(Originally published in The Friday Times)

Dirty media wars

In my last column for this paper, I had written about a near-fatal attack on my friend and fellow journalist, Raza Rumi. It was an emotional piece because my friend could have died in that attack. Having been through a near-death experience and seeing his driver dying in front of him, Raza Rumi is not sure if journalists can work with freedom under these circumstances. The state has virtually told journalists under threat that they are on their own and the state cannot protect them. “Pakistan’s media has always been under some kind of threat. After a long struggle it gained freedoms only to be muzzled by non-state actors and private militias and gangs, which act with impunity. Often they are linked to state institutions that patronise them and in other cases more powerful than the law enforcement apparatus,” says Raza. He is spot on.

Barely three weeks had passed when another journalist — Hamid Mir — received six bullets in Karachi. Thankfully, he survived. Mir is no ordinary journalist — he is one of Pakistan’s most famous journalists who hosts a prime-time show on the country’s largest private news channel, Geo. Yesterday, Mir recorded his statement and held the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) responsible for orchestrating the attack on him. The day he was attacked, his brother — Amir Mir — made the same allegations on Geo.

A media campaign against the Jang/Geo group was launched by rival media groups and those who supported Mir, his family, friends and colleagues were labelled as ‘traitors’ and ‘Indian agents’ for ‘tarnishing the image of Pakistan’s armed forces’. The Ministry of Defence recently moved Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to take action against Geo News for levelling allegations against the ISI and its chief. It shows that Pakistan’s military establishment remains as powerful as ever. Even when elected governments are in power, they have remained under the shadows of the hegemony of the garrison.

Media wars are not new in my country but the sick and twisted games that the media has played during this entire Hamid Mir/Jang/Geo saga is nothing short of abominable. It has endangered the lives of many others, including SAFMA Secretary General Imtiaz Alam. Mr Alam was hosting a show for Express News until recently. He resigned when he was asked to pre-record a show on Hamid Mir instead of going live, as was the norm with his talk show. He refused to be party to the rivalry between two media groups — Jang/Geo and Express — and decided not to be part of a malicious campaign against his fellow journalist Hamid Mir. When I asked him about his resignation, he said he did not want to get into any kind of bashing of the Express group but wanted to give friendly advice that they should not let the credibility of their group go down the drain by indulging in such sectarian fighting. Unfortunately, it appears that the Express group's owners do not care about media ethics.

In a story published in Express Tribune in response to Mr Alam's resignation letter, Express has clearly insinuated that he is an 'Indian agent'. This particular quote from the story is nothing short of incitement to violence: "What is the nexus between Mr. Alam's Pakistani and Indian handlers? Joining the dots in this case is the job of the country's intelligence agencies." Express is asking our intelligence agencies to 'sort out' Mr Alam, who is already on the hitlist of the Taliban. By publishing this story in a once-liberal paper, Express group has put Mr Alam's life at risk.

Pakistan’s democratic process has almost always remained under threat and some sections of our media have openly colluded with the undemocratic forces. This time, the media has gone a step further: asking for censorship and putting the lives of people from their own fraternity in danger. This should stop before we are all silenced one at a time.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)