Media and Militarism

Media and Militarism
The attempted target-assassination of Hamid Mir, a prominent journalist, in Karachi has raised several key issues. First, his own testament and its treatment by GEO are the subject of a furious debate in the country because they target the ISI and its DG, Lt-General Zaheerul Islam. Questions arise about the authenticity and credibility of Mir’s testament and GEO’s “attack” on the ISI. Second, the episode has served to split the journalist community into pro and anti ISI groups prodded by their respective media owners. Questions arise about media ethics and codes of conduct that have been blithely thrown overboard. Third, the ISI is in the dock. Questions arise about its covert operations and unaccountable policies.

Hamid Mir had informed concerned people at home and abroad, by audio, video and email messaging, that the ISI was gunning for him because of his anti-military stance on Balochistan’s missing persons and General Musharraf’s treason case. This was credible information. Other journalists who have stepped on the toes of the military in the past have also recorded such charges. They were roughed up or harassed, learnt their lesson, desisted and were spared, while Mir did exactly the opposite by continuing to snipe at the “sacred cow”. In 2011, another journalist, Saleem Shehzad, also run afoul of the ISI and informed near and dear ones of threats from the agency. When he too didn’t conform, he was mysteriously abducted and his tortured dead body was dumped in a canal. A commission of inquiry was critical of the lack of accountability of the ISI but didn’t indict it for obvious reasons. Another such commission of inquiry has been constituted in Mir’s case and chances are that its conclusions and compulsions won’t be much different from those of its predecessor. But the circumstantial evidence against the ISI can’t be shrugged away: as in Shehzad’s case, it had an angry grudge against Mir, it had warned him to behave or else, it was tapping his phones, it knew his travel plans precisely and it has the wherewithal to outsource such business to various non-state actors.

GEO’s response in defense of Hamid Mir was understandable for more than one reason. It has a fair axe to grind of its own too. The media group has run afoul of the military in recent years for opposing its policies on various issues, notably on peace with neighbours India and Afghanistan, civil-military relations, the war on terrorism and supremacy of the judiciary. The owners have become fearful for their lives and fled to safety in Dubai. In the past too, GEO clashed with the military when General Musharraf banned it from the airwaves for three months in 2007. But by targeting the head of the ISI relentlessly for over eight hours on that fateful day, GEO “personalized” the issue and provoked the agency to react aggressively by branding it a “traitor against national security”, and leaning on cable operators and PEMRA to shut it down. Like Geo’s “overkill” against the ISI, however, the latter’s “overkill” against GEO is likely to attract more criticism than support from civil society and the courts.

In this extraordinary confrontation, several media houses have banded with the ISI against GEO for commercial reasons behind the fig leaf of “patriotism”. GEO controls over 50% of all eyeballs in Pakistan and the rest have a vested interest in knocking it down. The tragedy is that many journalists on both sides have sold their souls to their respective media establishments or been silenced because of fear of the ISI.

GEO has apologized for its excessive and untoward targeting of DG-ISI. But the ISI is not in a forgiving mood. Both should step back.

There are lessons for all protagonists. No media group should get big enough to bring state institutions and elected bodies under its whimsical heel. The Geo/Jang Group should review its aggressive policies to define and change the rules of the political game in Pakistan as a king-maker and rein itself in.

The military and ISI, too, need to accept the new facts of democratic life in Pakistan. They cannot live above the law. They must live and let live. The new civilian dispensation, new press, new judiciary and new civil society want them to be accountable like everyone else. The military is the military and not “the establishment” and the ISI is the ISI and not a “sensitive agency”. Notions of praetorian patriotism and civilian treason are no longer acceptable or tenable.

Finally, the courts must rise to the occasion and draw the required red lines for all protagonists. Civil and criminal libel cases must be swiftly disposed off as deterrents to transgressors. Media against media, government/state against media and civil society against media — all relationships are in urgent need of repair, redress and balance. Freedom without responsibility is as bad as repression without accountability. This extraordinary episode must serve as a reminder of this truth to us all.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.