When you fail to create a narrative about Israel in the Pakistani media, you get very angry. You pick up Matiullah Jan, shoot Absar Alam and enter the houses of people like Asad Toor. Then you say that your tanks are becoming rusty, so let’s make peace with India…You called ‘Madre-Millat Fatima Jinnah a traitor and today you call Asad Toor a traitor…Do not ever enter the homes of journalists again. We don’t have tanks or guns like you, but we can tell the people of Pakistan about the stories that emerge from inside your homes. We will tell them whose wife shot whom inside the confines of their home. And which ‘General Rani’ was behind this. I hope you all have understood what I am saying.”
This was Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir of Geo News, speaking at the National Press Club in Islamabad over the weekend, in defence of his country’s media and mediapersons.
For a country that has been ruled by its army for more than half its existence and whose politics has consequently followed a tortuous course, Pakistan’s media has always kept at least one candle burning in pursuit of free speech and expression.
Mouthpiece of regimes as well as fiercely independent, both ultra-nationalist as well as severely critical of the military establishment, you can love or hate the Pakistani media; but it’s not easy to be indifferent to it.
A section holds its own
Over the decades, Pakistani journalists have been imprisoned, beaten and censored for writing and reporting on the 1971 break-up of Pakistan; on human rights abuses in Balochistan and elsewhere; on the shenanigans of political parties; and especially on the aggrandisement of the “deep state,” a euphemism for the army-ISI intelligence dyad that has infiltrated almost every branch of State and society.
In the past ten years, journalists have increasingly fallen foul. In May 2011, the body of Saleem Shahzad was found “entangled” in the Upper Jhelum canal, a couple of hours away from Islamabad; his body bore signs of torture. In April 2014, four gunmen fired at Hamid Mir, as he drove from Karachi airport to his Geo News office – he received bullets in his stomach and upper legs. Mir had told his friends that if he was attacked, he would hold ISI chief Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam responsible. One month before, journalist Raza Rumi barely escaped with his life and now mostly lives abroad – along with other journalists like Ayesha Siddiqa (a columnist at ThePrint), Taha Siddiqui and Gul Bukhari.
More recently, the Pakistani media’s reporting of its “hybrid government” – the rule of Prime Minister Imran Khan, brought to power with more than a little help from the military establishment, which means the establishment demands its pound of flesh more often than not – has been less tolerant.
But the gloves are not fully off – and may never be. The Pakistani media may never undertake a full-throated challenge to the diktats of the deep state, but sometimes it is angry enough to let out a roar that may damage not just the “enemy,” but also its own, cosy compact with it.
One of those moments is now.
The method of silencing
One week ago, three men barged into the house of popular vlogger and journalist Asad Ali Toor, told him they “belonged to the ISI” and proceeded to torture him. It seems that Toor, in his YouTube channel ‘Asad Toor Uncensored’, had talked about the sudden elevation of ISI chief Faiz Hameed’s brother Najaf Hameed, from ‘patwari’ to ‘naib tehsildar’ (both positions in the provincial civil service).
Only a month ago, journalist and former head of Pakistan’s broadcasting authority PEMRA, Absar Alam, had fortunately escaped with his life, the bullet merely grazing his ribs; last year in July, journalist Matiullah Jan, was picked up outside his wife’s school in Islamabad, but soon released.
On the eve of the attack against him, Alam had tweeted that as the head of PEMRA in 2017, he had ordered that TV Channel 92 be shut down because it violated guidelines, but was told by the ISI’s then counter-intelligence head General Faiz Hameed (he had not become ISI chief yet) to keep it open.
Certainly, Gen. Hameed earned his public spurs in that incident. For three weeks, the extreme Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik party gheraoed Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) government, which was in power at the time, upon which Hameed brokered an agreement between the two sides and signed off as guarantor. Many believed the Labbaik was merely a front for the ISI, which wanted to oust the PMLN and install a more favourable outfit, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – an accusation Nawaz Sharif would make later.
Opening Pandora’s box?
Asad Toor’s break-in and torture last week has now galvanised Pakistan’s media. Demonstrations have been held all over the country, but none more in the spotlight than outside the National Press Club, Islamabad, over the weekend — where three journalists, Munizae Jahangir, Asma Shirazi and Hamid Mir, set the stage on fire.
The pushback was immediate. One Pakistani journalist alleged that a woman had complained to Pakistan’s investigative agency about harassment from Asad Toor. Another TV journalist wondered why Hamid Mir was accusing intelligence agencies.
Certainly, among Mir’s memorable lines at the protest was the challenge to the military establishment not to touch Pakistani journalists again. “We cannot enter your homes, like you enter ours, but we can write about the stories that emerge from them,” Mir said, going on to talk about a “General Rani” of the present-day military dispensation in Pakistan.
There has been a hushed silence to Mir’s remarks, save for a few YouTube comments. So who was “General Rani” and why is Mir talking about her today? Speculation is rife in Pakistan about sexual favours being exchanged by the current military establishment – a bit like the time Aqleem Akhtar was both “muse and mistress” to Gen. Yahya Khan, the martial law administrator from 1969-71. Akhtar turned out to be one of the most influential and enterprising women in Pakistan’s power circles.
Whatever the truth, it seems as if one section of the Pakistani media, at least for the moment, is tired of playing cat-and-mouse. There’s a certain Dutch courage about that community that is rare – they want their country to be a “normal place” where the army and the ISI are subordinate to an elected leadership and all citizens, including Ahmadis, are equal.
The pragmatists say this will never happen; the dreamers insist that one day it will. Pakistan lurches between these two positions today, even as its media refuses to totally capitulate. It knows that staying alive for that new dawn, just like Faiz Ahmad Faiz once wrote, is its best strategy.
POSTSCRIPT: Within 48 hours of delivering his speech, Hamid Mir’s employers, Geo News, took him off his show ‘Capital Talk’. Mir says he is determined to fight back and uphold Pakistan’s Constitution. A new page in Pakistan’s media history is turning.
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)