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Live in Pak: A media war

As Geo TV blames the ISI for the attack on Hamid Mir, journalists take sides.

By: New York Times | London | Published:April 29, 2014 12:17 am
As Geo TV blames the ISI for the attack on Hamid Mir, journalists take sides. As Geo TV blames the ISI for the attack on Hamid Mir, journalists take sides.

As Geo TV blames the ISI for the attack on Hamid Mir, journalists take sides.

For a time, Pakistan’s journalists were seen as messy champions of democracy: brave if sometimes flawed truth-tellers who helped oust the military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf and held up a critical mirror to their tempestuous country.

But a recent vicious gun attack on Hamid Mir, the country’s most famous television newscaster, seems to have set off a media battle in which the truth itself has become bitterly contested.

At issue are claims aired by Geo News, Mir’s employer and the largest station, that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate was behind the April 19 attack in which Mir was shot six times as he travelled to a Karachi studio.

Even staunch ISI critics thought the station’s personalised attacks, which singled out the ISI spy chief as the culprit, were hasty and premature, especially at a time when Islamist militants were also targeting reporters.

But rival stations took the controversy a step further, using it to cudgel Geo and question Mir’s motives — one station even suggested he engineered the shooting as a publicity stunt — at a time when the ISI was formally trying to have Geo shut down for good.

The vituperative exchanges have exposed troubling aspects of Pakistan’s oft-lauded media revolution: Along with the military’s campaign to muzzle the press is the hand of media barons who, driven by commercial concerns and personal grudges, may be endangering the sector they helped create.

“ I’ve never seen the media like this, really going after each other. If better sense doesn’t prevail, whatever we have earned in press freedom will be lost,” said Zaffar Abbas, editor of Dawn newspaper, one of the few media outlets that have stayed out of the dispute.

Since 2007, when television played a key role in fanning the street protests that led to the ouster of Musharraf, the news media has grown into a powerful factor in Pakistani society. The exploding market has also turned prime-time hosts like Mir into powerful figures, and made fortunes for newly minted media tycoons.

For reporters, however, it has been a perilous time: Some 34 journalists have died in the line of duty since democracy was restored in 2008, said Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, whose report on media freedom is due to be published April 30. “It is supremely dangerous to be a reporter in Pakistan,” he said.

The military, in particular, has squirmed under the media’s relentless scrutiny. Tensions have been bubbling for some time between the Jang Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate, and the ISI. Jang is owned by Mir Shakil ur-Rehman, a reclusive editor who lives in Dubai, where he keeps a tight grip on a media empire that includes Geo News, several sports and entertainment channels, and a stable of newspapers in Urdu and English.

Last autumn, Rehman came to believe that the ISI was sponsoring a new television station, Bol, to dilute his commercial and political clout. His newspapers ran hostile reports about Bol, prompting competing media organisations to hit back with stories that painted Geo as sympathetic to Pakistan’s old rival, India.

Senior figures at Geo claimed the spat had put their lives in danger. In November, Rehman’s son Ibrahim, who is chief executive of Geo, said he had received warnings of an attack by “the ISI or one of their proxies.” Mir claimed the ISI tried to lure him away from the station, and had threatened his life.

The tensions erupted publicly after the attack on Mir. His brother, Amir Mir, also a journalist, accused the ISI of orchestrating the shooting in an emotional denunciation that was broadcast for hours on Geo, often against a backdrop of a photo of the ISI director general, Gen Zaheer ul-Islam.

The ISI leadership, stung by the unusually open challenge, reacted angrily. Last Tuesday, the military leadership sought to have Geo shut down and its editors prosecuted for “a libelous and scandalous” campaign that it said violated the country’s media law. On Thursday, viewers in major cities found that Geo had disappeared from its usual position on their cable television sets. And on Friday, posters appeared in Islamabad that praised the ISI and carried glossy photos of General Islam, a first in a country where many citizens fear to say the letters ISI out loud.

Few doubt the ISI, which has a dismal record of attacks on the press, is capable of such an attack. The spy agency’s media cell, infamous among journalists, is known to bribe select journalists with money, vehicles or other inducements. Critical reporters have been subjected to harassment, abduction and torture. In May 2011, the body of an investigative reporter, Saleem Shahzad, was found in a canal south of Islamabad after he was abducted by presumed ISI agents.

But other groups are also targeting journalists, in particular the Pakistani Taliban and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, according to Amnesty International. Both of those groups have infiltrated Geo.

In 2012, the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi recruited a reporter at Geo to help plan the assassination of an editor and a talk show host, said a former Geo manager. The plot was foiled when the reporter confessed.

Another Geo employee was identified as a militant after the Taliban assault on Karachi’s Mehran naval base in June 2011, the former manager said. The station also believes that insider information played a role in the death of Wali Khan Babar, a Geo reporter who was killed by the MQM in 2010, a current Geo manager said.

The controversy over Mir’s shooting is unlikely to be resolved. In the past two decades, Pakistan’s courts have produced convictions in just two fatal attacks on journalists: Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed in 2002, and Babar, the Geo reporter.

“Even if we discover who pulled the trigger on Hamid Mir,” said Qadri of Amnesty, “it’s very unlikely that the people behind them will be found out.”

Unlike in the Musharraf era, when journalists united against military attempts to muzzle them, virulent rivalries between the businessmen who own the major stations have pulled the news media apart.

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