The recent unsuccessful attempt to do away with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir in Karachi opened a can of worms in comparison with the complexity in the relationship the Pakistani media shares with State and non-State actors. That Pakistani media-persons have long apprehended strong relations with both the military and the militants of the country is no secret; neither is the fact that the Pakistani establishment often used the media at its will to further its propaganda – and the journalists let that happen.
The Military-Media Relationship
Pakistan is among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In the past, when the freedom and independence of the media was quiet by the might of military dictatorship, only those media houses and journalists that had connections with the military and the intelligence manage to survive. Information inflow is strongly controlled in the country, and throughout the years, especially during the US’ operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own domestic operations, the only sources of information were the military and/or the militants. Siding with the civilian leadership was not even an option until recently. Those who remained close to the military sources engraved out careers for themselves using this association. They managed to get exclusive news, interviews, and first-hand experience in areas otherwise cordoned off for journalists. Although there was a chance for the media to reinvent itself when the military’s grip loosened a little, it failed to do so due to the rot that has set in within the institution of the fourth estate as a whole. Journalists and media houses who owe their existence and/or growth in importance to the military have become comfortable with the arrangement. The media in Pakistan was never completely independent. Hypothetically speaking, they have either been in military embed or militia embeds. Although this is not the only cause, it is among the biggest causes of the decay here too, the choice of allies within the establishment and/or the militias plays a critical role. If one is in Lashkar-e-Taiba embeds, she/he has a shot at some level of safety, and whereas if one enjoys a Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) association, the prospects are always vague the most unfortunate ones are, of course, the ones who work in close coordination with the civilian government.
The Hamid Mir episode highlights the possibility of the Jang Group – the parent company of Geo TV where Mir is a journalist – teaming up with the Prime Minister’s Office to challenge the military’s supremacy in Pakistan. They had already started becoming aggressive, especially given their shows with politically bold themes. Mir’s statements about a ‘deep ISI’ and the possibility of differences between the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also point towards murkier issues. even though the attack on Mir, just weeks after one on Raza Rumi, another major journalist, garnered condemnations from all, the occurrence brought into the open the entrenched divide in the Pakistani media. For the first time in the country’s history a private media group openly blamed and challenged the ISI. In retaliation, partners of the military in the media houses openly lambasted Geo TV for blaming the ISI for the attack and many rallied in support of the organization
Basically, as it has historically been, this comes across as an alternative war for influence between the establishment and the civilian government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is treading carefully here. Many believe that Mir was attacked by the ISI primarily due to their disapproval over the subjects of his recent shows; especially since the Army is doing all it can to improve its image. More the miscalculations the Army makes, the higher the civilian leadership’s suitability goes.
Where Does This Lead?
Today, the media in Pakistan is essentially a business. Revenue and survival are greater motivations than truth and objectivity of content. Balanced reportage does exist, but such institutions and journalists are few in number and are being weed out – either by the military or the militants, or by both. What is more destructive is the divide among the media houses. The corporatization of Pakistani media, where more often than not there is little or no regard for journalistic ethics, has brought about a situation where media houses and journalists move quickly for business and application. In this disorder they have turned against each other, using unfortunate incidents like attacks on journalists to further their agenda. Gone are the days when people like Mir Murtaza Bhutto might run politically charged magazines like his Venceremos, however small in scale, editions of which derided the Shah of Iran who was then an ally of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In fact, some of the most charged protests
Against press censorship and/or military control of the media took place as far back as former dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. This does not augur well for a country where the military wields the beat. Internal trouble will only make it easier for the establishment to gain and declare more control on the flow of information – defeating the purpose of the survival of the press in the primary place.