The battle for Pakistan’s future is playing out on TV

The attack on journalist Hamid Mir presents a crucial opportunity for Pakistan’s media to renegotiate its relationship with the military and intelligence agencies.

For a state and society that has closely experienced military dictatorship, it appears odd to see it divided in its reaction to the failed assassination attempt on a prominent TV journalist, Hamid Mir of Geo News.

Mir survived six bullets shot at him as he was on his way to his studio on April 19. The attack by gunmen on motorbikes was similar to the one on Raza Rumi in Lahore on March 28. The government’s inability to assure security to Rumi has led to his exile from Pakistan. No longer is the targeting of journalists in Pakistan limited to the small reporter in the remote tribal area: it now happens to the big media-persons in the metros.

While the police arrested militants of the banned group Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi for the attack on Rumi, there is no word about who tried to kill Mir. His brother Amir Mir immediately took to the TV cameras and said that the attack was carried out by Pakistan’s all-powerful spy agency, the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence.

Some argue that this incident isn’t so unusual since journalists have been attacked several times before. Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists. According to Amnesty International, 34 journalists have been killed in the country since 2008. But strangely, there were many who did not approve of the decision by Mir’s family to blame the ISI. Within hours, the ISI’s sympathisers came out in droves to lambast Geo. Several journalists reputed to be close to the military establishment launched a collective blitzkrieg against the Geo group accusing it of irresponsible behavior and endangering the country and its integrity. One anchor on a rival channel even called Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, the owner of Geo, a petty shopkeeper trying to malign the ISI for his petty interests.

Others who joined in included the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Saeed who declared this incident an Indian-American conspiracy. His network even took out processions in several cities in support of the army. Projects like Aman ki Asha run jointly in India and Pakistan by the Geo’s parent organisation, the Jang group, and the Times of India are being treated as evidence of the Pakistani media group’s complicity in an alleged Indian plan to destroy the country. The main Jinnah Avenue in the capital Islamabad and many other places around the country were peppered with banners expressing people’s love for the army and the ISI. Some of these posters even said that anyone who opposed the ISI was a national traitor.

The intriguing chessboard

What’s intriguing about the entire case is the manner in which the chessboard is laid out. We see a situation where journalists considered staunchly right-wing are working for Geo and are critical of the ISI. Some of these are prominent names who have always supported the intelligence agency. In fact, many of them, including Hamid Mir himself, have produced several programmes accusing the previous Pakistan People’s Party-led government of trying to destroy the ISI. Clearly, the former loyalists are peeved with the agency’s attack on one of their own.

Notwithstanding the shows that Hamid did on the Baluchistan insurgency or discussing Bangladesh, he was by no stretch of imagine ideologically poised against the military. One is even reminded of Mir publicly disclosing the Pakistani prime Minister Nawaz Shari’s off-the-record comment last September about the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh behaving like a “dehati aurat” (village woman). That embarassed both Sharif and Singh as they met in New York. Considering that Hamid Mir has a long experience as a journalist, many people believe that his remark, calculated to discomfit the politician, was proof of his friendly ties with the military.

However, there is no reason to believe that he’s lying about this suggestion that that it was the ISI that tried to bump him off. In one of his television programs before the attack, he even displayed the mobile number of one Captain Wajahat from the ISI who was threatening him.

Thus far, there are two explanations for the incident. First, some believe that the attack could have been carried out by a faction within the ISI that was unhappy with the journalist’s decision to highlight critical issues like the secessionist movement in Baluchistan.

Others feel that the attack reflects the tension between the ISI and the army. In an interview to the BBC, Mir had talked about ISI within the ISI. Some sceptics argue that the Director General of the  ISI, Zaheer-ul-Islam, is seeking an extension in service as he is due to retire soon, but some want to create conditions that present him as an incompetent chief.

Most of all, this is a moment of crisis in a longstanding relationship between the military and the media. It is clear that the Jang group is taking on the military to re-negotiate this relationship. The media knows the military would be in a tight spot if the case goes to court. It may not be able to prove the ISI guilty, as had happened in the Saleem Shahzad murder case of 2011, but it would still be a matter of great embarrassment. It is possible that the Geo group has drawn its power and confidence from the incumbent Nawaz Sharif government, which is eager to cut the military down to its size.

Re-imaging the media-military relationship

The media finds itself in the middle of Pakistan’s two stakeholders – the army headquarters and the prime minister’s office. Using the media also gives both sides plausible deniability. The government is presently sitting quite relaxed watching the battle between Geo and the army. It understands that every embarrassing moment for the army contributes to its own long-term political mileage.

The attacks on journalists are a moment for many in the media to rethink their relationship with the agencies. The intelligence has had a long-term relationship with the media which has even been used to negotiate amongst the three services of the armed forces. Given that Pakistan does not have freedom of information, journalists end up establishing links with intelligence. In the past decade of the war on terror, the military has been a critical supplier of information. There is a long queue of journalists who owe their existence to assistance from the ISI – travelling on military helicopters, landing in exotic areas of conflict and getting stories from inside jail cells. This is not about cultivating sources in the military but ultimately getting cultivated yourself.

Intelligence agencies, especially the military ones, are deeply in the business of image management. They have not only managed to penetrate newsrooms but also think-tanks and NGOs. Even foreign academics are financed to write books that present a pro-military version.

Most likely, the moment will pass. Most journalsits will continue to maintain their ties with the ISI and other agencies. But this may offer a tiny opportunity for one media group to show that it can take on the military and survive. The Geo group’s owner, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, is trying to build bridges. He is a businessman and no ideologue. The military will try to teach the group some lesson. It has already secretly restricted Geo broadcasts in major cities and cantonments. However, there will be resistance to any move to gag the media. The battle for Pakistan’s future is underway, and you can watch it on TV.

Note: This article originally published here.