ISLAMABAD: Abrar Tanoli. Ayub Khattak. Shan Dahar. Bakhtaj Ali. Razik Baloch. Almost no-one knows who these persons are, not even a very big chunk of Pakistan’s 18,000-strong community of working journalists. They were all working journalists who were killed in targeted attacks in the last 12 months.
Three other media workers — Waqas Aziz, Khalid Khan and Ashraf Arain, non-journalists but media assistants — were also killed in the same period. They were working for various media groups and died in the line of duty. Also attacked were media houses — offices of Express, Nawa-i-Waqt and Aaj TV. There were protests everywhere against those who targeted these journalists and media houses.
But something curious has happened when one of Pakistan’s well-known journalist — Hamid Mir — last week joined a long list of hundreds of journalists who have been injured, assaulted, kidnapped, arrested, tortured and/or intimidated since 2000: A passionate war of words has broken out over the airwaves among various media groups on how to deal with the attack.
It started when Mir’s brother Amir, himself a journalist working for Jang, was invited by Geo News to comment on the attack even as his better known sibling fought for his life in a hospital.
On air live, Amir did not pull any punches in squarely laying the blame on ISI chief Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam and his colleagues for the murderous attack and made a coherent if not audacious speech in the framework of the civil-military equation. It all ballooned on from there as the focus of the coverage shifted from the incident to the accused.
A fairly swift rebuttal of the allegation from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in defence of the ISI was all that was required for all the other channels to jump into the fray.
From then on there’s a clear position that Jang Group has taken, and more or less another one — driven by targeting of Geo TV — that some other channels have taken, with ARY and Express groups being pretty liberal in taking potshots at Geo for allegedly denigrating the armed forces and intelligence agencies.
Even the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), already divided in three factions, has taken an astonishing position on the issue. Afzal Butt, who heads his faction of the PFUJ, said that they cannot allow themselves “to be used as a platform” to malign the ISI or the army. “We stand by Hamid Mir and support his constitutional right to seek inquiry against those he suspects but as professionals we should be wary of becoming a party to someone’s personal grudge,” he said.
“Supporting Hamid Mir should not mean being anti-armed forces.” There are opposing views. Rana Azeem, the president of another PFUJ faction, says they are opposed to all attacks against the media whatever the motive and whoever the attacker.
“The attack on Hamid Mir is audacious. Whoever is allegedly involved in attacking him, irrespective of their rank or standing, should be investigated. We should trust the system to do that and should focus our efforts for now, as journalists, to demand and pursue justice,” he said.
Despite the enormous goodwill he enjoys, Mir finds himself unwittingly the catalyst of a deepening division within the media ranks. Says Iqbal Khattak, the Peshawar-based Executive Director of Freedom Network, a media watchdog advocating for media safety: “There was a time in Pakistan when newspaper owners had a code of ethics that disallowed criticism against each other in each other’s publications.”
But the advent of real-time TV media has changed all that and we now actually find Jang group, Express group and ARY running active campaigns against each other.”
Media activist and senior journalist Mazhar Abbas says the media sector must take urgent steps to stem the crisis of credibility engulfing it by putting an immediate end to criticism of each other by media houses.
Scores of journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000. As media fights its own demons, others pick off media targets one by one. And who’s killing them? Many know and don’t speak out as Mir and his family did but Reporters without Borders said in a recent report that the Taliban and intelligence services are the biggest predators of media freedoms in Pakistan.
The Saleem Shahzad Commission agreed somewhat. And now the Hamid Mir Commission announced by the prime minister has the opportunity to find some answers.