Media in Pakistan

The War Against and Within

14 May, 2014    ·   4458

D Suba Chandran writes about the threats to Pakistani media from within and outside the fourth estate 

What had started as an attack against an individual journalist last month has now turned into a full blown war against the media, and unfortunately, also within. The situation is not only likely to worsen what the journalists within Pakistan are facing already, but also leave ugly scars on the media, relationship between different media houses/groups, between the journalists,  and also between the media and the institutions of the State, especially the military and its ISI.

Though it all started with the attack on Hamid Mir, a senior journalist with the Geo group during the third week of April, it was only a continuation of what has been happening in Pakistan during the last few years. Remember the attack on Raza Rumi, another journalist with the Express Tribune group, a month earlier in Lahore?

Remember the attack and murder of Saleem Shahzad, another journalist recently?
The recent report by Amnesty International, released late last month, titled “A Bullet has been chosen for you: Attacks on Journalists in Pakistan” paint the grim situation within Pakistan for the media community. This report should be a must read for everyone, for it explains the nature of threat, and where it emanates from.

The War against media, comes from atleast three distinct sources. First and foremost from the non-State actors; while the Taliban and its multiple avatars within Pakistan have been waging a brutal war against the journalists in the last few years, the sectarian militants belonging to different denominations have not been kind to the media as well. The media has been threatened by the Taliban; in one instance, one of the leading newspaper group in Pakistan – the Express Tribune had to make a strict restriction in terms of what could be published and what has to be avoided in terms of covering the Taliban and its activities within Pakistan.

Certain political parties and feudal lords within Pakistan also have not been friendly to the media. Few political parties – secular and otherwise, especially in Karachi have been accused of threatening the journalists with dire consequences if the latter publish against the interests of the former.
Finally, the Establishment, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence has been continuously accused of interfering with and influencing the media. Immediately after the attack on Hamid Mir, his brother went on public and live accusing the ISI for being behind the attack. Hamid Mir himself has been telling before the attack, that if anything happen to him, the intelligence agencies would be behind the same.
But the problem that the media faces in Pakistan today is not in terms of who is targeting it – whether non State actors or institutions of the State.  The bigger problem is the war within and its long term implications for the media and the larger political process, especially freedom of speech and democratic transition. Consider the following.

Remember, how within a matter of a day, the entire debate on the attack against Hamid Mir got shifted and became a war within media, and between the Geo Group and the Establishment? Why did the attack on Raza Rumi, a well reputed and moderate voice not elicit a similar response? Therein lies the rub, the divide within the media, and the larger problem.

Raza Rumi’s attack was believed to have been carried out by the Taliban, for he is seen as a moderate and secular voice by the radical forces within Pakistan. When he was targeted, no one talked about any conspiracy theory, or weaved a story against the media house he is associated with. It was an attack, that everyone condemned, but heavens did not move or fall, when he was targeted. Ironically, he had to leave the country, for the State could not guarantee his security.

However, when Hamid Mir was targeted, there were multiple twists within the media and also on the debate led by the civil society. A section questioned the need for Hamid Mir’s TV channel to repeatedly show the ISI Chief in the background while accusing the institution for being behind the attack, without any proof or investigation. Another section went even further and questioned the motivations behind the Geo News (to which Hamid Mir belong to) and accused the group for targeting the Establishment and thereby destabilizing the country. An immediate report in one of the rival group even claimed that “by attacking the country’s premier intelligence agency with such force, Geo TV has not just damaged a national institution, but also undermined the safety and security of Pakistan.”!

Wait. The bizarre is yet to come. Another section went even further. It saw a larger conspiracy behind the entire Geo News and its allied media houses within Pakistan of being pro-India and working against the interests of Pakistan.

Perhaps, as one of the leading commentator Ayaz Amir wrote, there was a “grief overkill” led by the Geo News, but what happened on other side was also equally extreme. The Establishment moved the PEMRA through its Defence Ministry to ban the Geo News, while those non-State actors including few militant groups which have been generally viewed as closer to the ISI, went on an offensive by supporting the ISI and military. Anyone who would criticize the military and the intelligence agencies are seen as anti-national and working against the interests of the country.

More than what the Establishment and the non-State actors are pursuing, in terms of attempting to silence the detractors, what is happening within the media and journalist fraternity should be a serious cause of worry. Already, there have been accusations of few scribes being on the payrolls of the Establishment. There have also been stories of planted stories not only by the State and its multiple actors, but also by influential individuals. Remember the Media Gate episode, where the business tycoon Malik Riaz worked with two anchors – Mehar Bukhari and Mubashir Lucman? The discussions after the interview, which were recorded and released on Youtube later, would highlight the darker side of the media, especially the electronic, in Pakistan.

Perhaps the 24 hours news channel and the need to be on top in the ranking is wreaking havoc. Or perhaps, the corporatization of media is emphasizing more on profit than ethics of journalism. Or perhaps, the younger generation within media has no patience and they want everything and right then. Perhaps, there is a gap between senior journalists and younger ones; the multiple schools of journalism that are churning out more and more into the market goes against the guru-sishya traditions, in which the values are imbibed working under a senior and father figure. Perhaps the tools of trade in modern day journalism and the pace of expressions in real time have started affecting the slow pace investigations and verify strategies.

Should the State do something about this? Though there is PEMRA, given the strength and the success of the institutions in South Asia, it would be better if the State keeps away from the media and let it remain independent. It should be left to senior journalists to initiate an internal dialogue within the media; Pakistan has always had a rich corps of journalists who have guided their institution and taken it through some of the worst times.

What is happening against the media in Pakistan is a serious development. But even more important is what is happening within the media in Pakistan. The threat from within is as dangerous as the threat from outside.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir