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A gun attack on Hamid Mir triggers debate about safety of journalists in Pakistan

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It was probably 2003 when Mehmood Khan Achakzai rose from his seat one day to address the National Assembly. He glanced at the press gallery and found journalist Hamid Mir sitting among other reporters.

Out of the blue Mr Achakzai, who heads Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, called Mr Mir an ISI agent. “Look Mr Speaker, there is an ISI agent sitting up there, who makes politicians quarrel in his program,” were his words as I remember them.

Everyone burst into laughter, including Mr Mir. There was no walkout from the press gallery, and Hamid Mir did not react. Listeners said it was merely frustration being expressed by a politician who was expecting a restoration of democracy after the October 1999 military coup.

Hamid Mir rose to global fame when he interviewed Osama bin Laden in December 2001. The Al Qaeda chief claimed he had nuclear weapons, but refused to say where he had got them from. It turned out later that he was lying.

On April 19, gunmen tried to kill Mr Mir as he came out of Karachi airport. He survived the attack and now is on his way to recovery.

His brother Amir Mir, himself a veteran journalist, said Hamid had told him about the possibility of attack on him by the ISI. He also sent a recorded message to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

By late evening, everyone with access to cable TV knew what Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam looks like. A senior colleague of Hamid Mir even demanded that Gen Islam resign.

[quote]By late evening, everyone with access to cable TV knew what the ISI chief looks like[/quote]

At first the military was silent. Then a brief statement condemned the incident and made two additional comments: “An independent inquiry must immediately be carried out to ascertain facts. However raising allegations against ISI or head of ISI without any basis is highly regrettable and misleading.”

The next day, military spokesman Maj Gen Asim Bajwa announced his institution would take legal action.

On the instruction of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the interior secretary sent a letter to the Supreme Court requesting a three-member judicial commission to investigate the matter. Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jilani nominated Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, Justice Ijaz Afzal and Justice Hameedur Rehman. The government asked the commission to furnish a report in 21 days.

The journalist community is divided into three blocks – some agree with his allegations, others demand a treason case against him for making them, and a few others want both sides to calm down and wait for the police inquiry and the judicial probe to finish.

Nothing substantial has come out of such inquiries in the past, such as in the cases of Saleem Shahzad, Hayatullah Khan, Musa Khankhel and many others. Since 1992, more than 70 journalists have been murdered in Pakistan, according to Reporters without Borders.

Quite recently, assassins tried to kill another veteran journalist Raza Rumi. He survived the attack because of sheer luck. The inquiry has not revealed anything so far.

“It can become a turning point, but I am not very hopeful,” said award winning journalist Mazhar Abbas. “I have lost hope that the government would take steps to protect the lives of working journalists.”

Anchorperson Waseem Badami said the government had left journalists at the mercy of lurking assassins. “Since the job of a journalist is to criticize the government, the government is not very fond of them. It is not very inclined to ensuring the safety of their critics.”

Meanwhile, the ISI is in a strange situation. The army is just said to have mended ties with the PML-N government, after a disagreement over former military ruler Gen (r) Pervaiz Musharraf’s treason trial among other things.

As the military weighs its options, it will have to re-establish its credibility and absolve the ISI’s name. The spy agency has the resources to find out and nab the real perpetrators.

Shahzad Raza is a journalist based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shahzadrez