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Is the Pakistani media victim of a larger game?

It appears that the media at large is under siege in Pakistan. It is not just allegedly being allowed to operate at the mercy of the ISI or the military establishment, but it also seems to have taken a divided stance on the issue.

world Updated: May 25, 2014 13:01 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad

Earlier this week, a committee of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) announced that it had unanimously decided to shut down Geo News, the country’s most watched news channel for a week. Soon after, another announcement came from PEMRA: that its own committee had acted illegally and no such order had been passed. This confusion suggests that the stakes in this tussle are higher than anyone had expected when it started.

Geo has been under a cloud ever since its star anchor, Hamid Mir, was shot six times on a busy Karachi street in April.

Mir’s was one of several attacks in the past few years on journalists in the country. Instead of staying quiet, both Mir and his channel blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI, and its head, Lt General Zaheer-ul Islam for being responsible for the attack. This allegation has come at a price.

No signs of unity
It appears that the media at large is under siege in Pakistan. It is not just allegedly being allowed to operate at the mercy of the ISI or the military establishment, but it also seems to have taken a divided stance on the issue. Since those allegations were made by Geo, the organisation has been verbally attacked and charges have been laid by rival news channels like ARY and Express News, who have sided with the ISI and the military establishment.

The recent developments in Pakistan paint an unnerving picture — one where the media, as a whole, seems powerless and divided. The pursuit of information appears to be failing to keep it united. “Instead of uniting against the attack, media houses are aligning with the ISI or with the government,” says GM Jamali of the Karachi Union of Journalists.

Newspapers of the Jang Group — the media house that owns Geo — have run into distribution problems in cantonment areas. The powerful Cable Operators Association has boycotted Geo and changed its placement in the channel run-up. There have been rallies against the media house in different cities and towns across Pakistan.

Things got vicious when a host on a programme aired on Geo channel was accused of blasphemy. “Now the military establishment has gotten the religious extremists involved in the fight,” comments lawyer Feisal Naqvi. Meanwhile, Shaista Wahidi, the host, has left the country, fearing for her life.

Targeted by many
The media was already under threat from extremists. The Express News Group has been the target of six attacks since August last year, as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) took exception to some of the programmes that the channel had aired. Raza Rumi, the host on one of these programmes, escaped narrowly when he was attacked by gunmen in Lahore.

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. In 2013, 11 journalists died in the course of their work, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Many were/are killed or threatened by militants. Others are under fire from the intelligence agencies.

On the World Press Freedom Index, put together by Reporters Without Borders, a global organisation fighting for freedom of information, Pakistan was placed at 159 out of 179 countries. Meanwhile, India did not get a great feedback either, being ranked at 140. Such indices cannot be the only measure of press freedom for they tend to omit the quality of journalism, but they cannot be discarded either.

The tussle within
Aside from various journalist organisations, the Nawaz Sharif government, along with major political parties of the country, is supporting Geo News. The only notable exception is Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

In a country where the military has historically held great power, media seems to be caught between the scramble for greater power between the military commanders and the civilian government of PM Sharif. The confusion that arises from PEMRA’s actions suggests the same. The fight between Geo and the ISI highlights the tussle between the Sharif government and the military high command. Reportedly, Sharif has privately asked the army to let Geo off the hook. The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, it is believed, has refused.

Information minister Pervez Rasheed outlined the government’s policy earlier this week saying that there is no justification in shutting down a channel and the media should pursue a policy of live and let live. This suggests that the government is not ready to bow to pressure from the army.

It appears that the military, which has been a powerful player in Pakistan, wants to set an example. “After a long time the ISI has been able to put this kind of pressure on Geo,” says Syed Shamsuddin, of the independent HRCP. “If Geo is closed, we can say goodbye to media freedom in Pakistan. No other channel will dare do stories that criticise the ISI or the establishment,” he adds.

In an interview after his attack, Hamid Mir said that one of the reasons why he may have been targeted could have been his coverage of the protest march in Balochistan, where relatives of those kidnapped by the intelligence agencies made their way to Islamabad to protest the state’s policy against the country’s largest province. The media is now cautious about such stories.