The recent unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir in Karachi opened a can of worms vis-à-vis the complexities in the relationship the Pakistani media shares with State and non-State actors.
That Pakistani media-persons have long held strong associations with both the military and the militants of the country is no secret; neither is the fact that the Pakistani establishment often used the media at its will to further its propaganda – and the journalists let that happen.
The Military-Media Relationship
Pakistan is among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In the past, when the freedom and independence of the media was stifled by the might of military dictatorship, only those media houses and journalists that had connections with the military and the intelligence managed to survive. Information inflow is tightly controlled in the country, and throughout the years, especially during the US’ operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own domestic operations, the only sources of information were the military and/or the militants. Siding with the civilian leadership was not even an option until recently.
Those who remained close to the military sources carved out careers for themselves using this association. They managed to get exclusive news, interviews, and first-hand experience in areas otherwise cordoned off for journalists.
Although there was a chance for the media to reinvent itself when the military’s grip loosened a little, it failed to do so due to the rot that has set in within the institution of the fourth estate as a whole.
Journalists and media houses who owe their existence and/or growth in prominence to the military have become comfortable with the arrangement. The media in Pakistan was never entirely independent. Theoretically speaking, they have either been in military embeds or militia embeds. Although this is not the only cause, it is among the biggest causes of the rot.
Here too, the choice of allies within the establishment and/or the militias plays a critical role. If one is in Lashkar-e-Taiba embeds, she/he has a shot at some level of safety, whereas if one enjoys a Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) association, the prospects are always uncertain. The most ill-fated ones are, unsurprisingly, the ones who work in close coordination with the civilian government.
The Hamid Mir episode highlights the likelihood of the Jang Group – the parent company of Geo TV where Mir is a journalist – teaming up with the Prime Minister’s Office to challenge the military’s dominance in Pakistan. They had already started becoming belligerent, especially given their shows with politically bold themes. Mir’s statements about a ‘deep ISI’ and the possibility of differences between the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also point towards murkier issues.
Although the attack on Mir, just weeks after one on Raza Rumi, another prominent journalist, garnered condemnations from all, the incident brought into the open the entrenched divide in the Pakistani media. For the first time in the country’s history a private media group openly blamed and challenged the ISI. In retaliation, cronies of the military in the media houses openly lambasted Geo TV for blaming the ISI for the attack and many rallied in support of the establishment.
Essentially, as it has historically been, this comes across as a proxy war for influence between the establishment and the civilian government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is treading carefully here. Many believe that Mir was attacked by the ISI primarily due to their displeasure over the subjects of his recent shows; especially since the Army is doing all it can to improve its image. More the miscalculations the Army makes, the higher the civilian leadership’s acceptability goes.
Where Does This Lead?
Today, the media in Pakistan is essentially a business. Revenue and survival are greater motivations than truth and objectivity of content. Unbiased reportage does exist, but such institutions and journalists are few in number and are being weeded out – either by the military or the militants, or by both.
What is more damaging is the divide among the media houses. The corporatisation of Pakistani media, where more often than not there is little or no regard for journalistic ethics, has brought about a situation where media houses and journalists scramble for business and relevance. In this commotion, they have turned against each other, using unfortunate incidents like attacks on journalists to further their agenda.
Gone are the days when people like Mir Murtaza Bhutto could run politically charged magazines like his Venceremos, however small in scale, editions of which derided the Shah of Iran who was then an ally of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In fact, some of the most charged protests against press censorship and/or military control of the media took place as far back as former dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.
This does not bode well for a country where the military wields the whip. Infighting will only make it easier for the establishment to gain and assert more control on the flow of information – defeating the purpose of the existence of the press in the first place. In a country that is only slowly transitioning into democracy, it is crucial that the press corps remains united and objective.