PAKISTAN: Are Government Spies Behind Media Assault?

AUSTIN SZABO WRITES – For years, news anchor and journalist Hamid Mir has been fighting for the cause of a free press in Pakistan. Now he’s fighting for his own life. Still recovering from an unsolved assassination attempt April 19, Mir, undaunted, issued a statement accusing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being behind the attack.

Mir claims his long career of criticism against the ISI has made him a target of the intelligence agency, leading to the attempt on his life. Well-known in Pakistan for his TV show, Capital Talk, he has held the ISI responsible for the alleged cover-up of Osama bin Laden’s location and the disappearance of thousands of Pakistani Balochi (an ethnic minority).

Mir’s accusation ignited a loud and public dispute between the media and the government. The state has tried to shift blame to the Taliban, but drew criticism after the Defense Ministry demanded that Geo, Pakistan’s largest news network and Mir’s employer, be shut down over a “vicious campaign” against the ISI. Despite the apparent attack on freedom of the press, some media outlets turned on Geo, questioning Mir’s character and motives.

Mir’s accusation is just the latest story in Pakistan’s long history of anti-journalist attacks and censorship. Reporters Without Borders reports that seven journalists were killed in Pakistan last year, one of the highest rates in the world. Amnesty International is using the hashtag #ProtectJournalists and a petition to raise awareness of the threat against Pakistani journalists.

While the Taliban has carried out much of Pakistan’s violence against the media, journalists no longer trust the government to protect them. As an editorial in the Express Tribune newspaper put it, “The state clearly cannot, or may not want to, provide us protection or even justice.” Among the journalists still under threat is Mir, who claims he was told that there would be more attempts on his life.

The 2014 World Press Freedom Index ranks Pakistan as the 158th, only ahead of countries who either control their media systems or are currently killing their own people on a massive scale.

Much of this violence comes from the Taliban, despite their talk of peace. Their recent attacks have killed several Express Tribune staffers, with the terrorist network threatening those who criticize them with the same fate. The Taliban has also curbed any positive coverage about Malala, leading to censorship of her work and the souring of her reputation.

But the resurgent Taliban is not the only threat to Pakistanis’ freedom of expression. Bureaucratic and ineffective at enforcing the law, yet more powerful than the Taliban, Pakistan’s government is the country’s biggest threat to free speech. The government is responsible for a variety of policies that hurt free expression and the press. And individual freedoms seem not to count where religion is concerned. Citing “morality,” the Pakistani state has been involved in various acts of censorship, banning LGBT websites, late-night texting plans, and even YouTube.

Less religiously motivated was the recent removal of a New York Times article from the Pakistani edition. While the local editors cut the story, claiming worries of Taliban attack, the censorship benefited the government more than anyone else. The missing article discussed the possibility that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, withheld Osama bin Laden’s location.

Pakistani journalists are at threat of being either silenced or murdered for reporting on religious matters, on the Taliban, or on the ISI, arguably some of the most important issues in the country. Journalists are being promised protection by the state, while also being told to unite to avoid getting picked off. They have little hope anything will change. As an editorial in the Tribune asks,  “Shall we just close shop, keeping in mind that we are no longer safe telling the truth and the state clearly cannot, or may not want to, provide us protection or even justice?”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.