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 continued…