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)

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