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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

In Pak turmoil over journalist’s beating, a curious subtext: pushback against Gen Bajwa’s bid to improve relations with India

Pakistan's journalists, used to dealing with direct or indirect military rulers for decades, are also known to push back every now and then.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian , Edited by Explained Desk
Mumbai | Updated: June 1, 2021 6:03:56 pm
Pakistani journalists and members of civil society take part in a demonstration called by journalists union to condemn the attack on journalists, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, May 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

On May 28, at a gathering of journalists in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad to protest a brutal assault on a colleague by three men who intruded into his home, television anchor Hamid Mir challenged the powerful Pakistan military establishment — which the journalists suspected was behind the attack — to own up to it.

“If they can enter our homes and assault us, we can’t enter their homes because they are armed with weapons, but we can definitely expose what goes on inside their homes — and why the wife of a general shot at him,” Mir said, dropping a bombshell with Asad Ali Toor, the journalist who had been beaten up, by his side.

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Three days later, on Monday, Mir, the most well known face on Pakistani news television, was told by his employers Geo Television that his popular nightly show Capital Talk would not air anymore.

“The management (of Geo) asked me the very next day to issue a clarification that I was not talking about anyone in the Pakistan Army,” Mir told The Indian Express from Islamabad.

“I asked them (the Geo management) if they had got calls to tell me this and if so, who had called them. They did not tell me. I did not name anyone,” Mir added.

“I offered to my management that the faces of the three men (who assaulted Toor) have been captured on CCTV, let them find and produce these men and declare they are not from ISI, and I will give not just a clarification, but an apology. They said they would get back to me. Today Geo management informed me that I am not doing the show,” Mir said.

This is not the first time that Mir has been taken off air. His show Capital Talk was banned for a period in 2007, and then in 2014, when he named then ISI chief Gen Zaheer Ul Islam for a gun-and-bomb attack that he narrowly survived.

Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir sits in his office in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File)

The latest incidents highlight once again the enormous risks that Pakistan’s journalists run when they focus attention on the country’s all-powerful military. Pakistan ranks 145 in the World Press Freedom Index (India is only slightly better at 142) — and only the brave dare to cross the red lines around the Pakistani military. But its journalists, used to dealing with direct or indirect military rulers for decades, are also known to push back every now and then.

However, Mir’s fiery speech at the protest was noteworthy for an important subtext. As the anchor took on the military, he also appeared to be bringing attention to rumoured internal divisions in the country’s most powerful institution. The public outing of the personal travails of a serving general, even if he was not named, has likely ended this individual’s ambition of climbing to the top of the pyramid.

The general’s name is an open secret in Islamabad, and details about the alleged incident have spread swiftly.

Observers in India noted another important highlight of Mir’s short speech — the apparent absence of a consensus in Pakistani civil society, and perhaps even within the Army, on Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s efforts for a “paradigm shift” in relations with India.

Mir spoke of how the Army held briefings for journalists at which it asked them to “build a narrative” for establishing relations with Israel and for its overtures to India — “because you tell us that we can’t fight with India, our tanks have become rusty” — and then complained angrily that the media did not participate in these projects.

“On relations with Israel and India, we journalists stand on the same side as the people of this country, on the same side as the Qaid e Azam,” Mir said.

Toor, a video blogger and former TV producer, is known for his one-man shows on YouTube, where he gives the “inside” dope on the “establishment”.

Although many in Toor’s fraternity have differences with his style of journalism, all agree that he had rubbed the Army the wrong way with his focus in recent months on the corruption charges against Justice Faiz Isa of the Supreme Court, who had rapped the Army and ISI in one of his orders for its “involvement” in politics, media and “unlawful activities”.

It is widely believed that the charges were brought against Justice Isa to nix his elevation as Chief Justice in 2024.

On May 25, Toor opened the door to three men, who entered, beat him as they gagged him to prevent him screaming for help, and left him outside the door of his apartment. Journalists said a new line had been crossed.

Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor speaks during a demonstration called by journalists union to condemn the attack on journalists, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, May 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

“Every tactic has been used to harass us. Pakistani journalists have had to endure public flogging under military dictators. But now in this one-page hybrid civilian-military government, they discredit us, have us sacked from our jobs, abruptly interrupt programmes on air, they censor us and force many to self-censor. But this is the first time they have entered a journalist’s house and physically assaulted him,” said a well known woman anchor, adding that the situation for journalists had deteriorated under the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

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Some weeks ago, Absar Alam, a senior journalist known to be close to the Pakistan Muslim League was shot at.

In 2016, Cyril Almeida, a senior editor at Dawn, was hounded and had to resign, because of his report about a heated meeting between members of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and the military establishment, in which the politicians allegedly blamed the generals for Pakistan’s poor standing in the world.

In July 2020, TV journalist Matiullah Jan was picked up and dropped off at his home after several hours by men who were from the “agencies”.

And almost exactly 10 years ago — on May 30, 2011 — the body of journalist Saleem Shehzad was found in a canal outside Islamabad, three days after he disappeared.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is now trying to bring the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance, 2021, which, according to columnist Huma Yusuf, “seeks to centralise media oversight under one draconian authority”.

“Media outlets will need annual NOCs to remain operational, and would be subject to suspension and arbitrary fees and penalties, with no onus on the government to provide warning or rationales for clampdowns. The law might enable the break-up of large media groups and extend control to digital platforms,” she wrote in Dawn.

At last Friday’s protest, Munizae Jehangir, another star of Pakistani television news, lashed out against the military. “Those who would teach us about patriotism would have no place to hide if we started listing all the services you have rendered to this country,” she said.

“Journalists were now being beaten inside their homes and offices, and were being gagged from speaking out against the military and the Supreme Court. We ask you to change Article 19 (of the Constitution which places these restrictions) or we ask you to change, but don’t try and change us, we will continue to stand against you, despite all your propaganda against us,” she said.

A message sent to Pakistan Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary for information on Toor’s still-unidentified attackers, and the progress of the police investigation in the case went unanswered.

There is widespread concern that the retribution may not stop with Hamid Mir. But along with media freedom, the “public shaming” of a general was “extraordinary”, and something that had “never happened before”, said one journalist who has experienced the rough side of the Army.

It has likely improved the chances of several other generals who are in competition to succeed Gen Bajwa when he retires in November 2022. Mir’s remarks also revealed that peace plans with India are more a personal project of Gen Bajwa’s, and lack political support and wider approval.

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