LONDON: For a time, Pakistan’s journalists were seen as messy champions of democracy: brave if sometimes flawed truth-tellers who helped oust the military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf and held up a critical mirror to their tempestuous country.
But a vicious gun attack last weekend on Hamid Mir, the country’s most famous television newscaster, seems to have changed everything, setting off a divisive media battle in which the truth itself has become bitterly contested.
At issue are claims aired by Geo News, Mr. Mir’s employer and the largest station, that the military’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, was behind the April 19 attack in which Mr. Mir was shot six times as he traveled to a Karachi television studio.
Even staunch ISI critics thought the station’s personalized attacks, which singled out the ISI spy chief as the culprit, were hasty and premature, especially at a time when Islamist militants were also targeting reporters.
But rival stations took the controversy a step further, using it to cudgel Geo and question Mr. Mir’s motives — one station even suggested he engineered the shooting as a publicity stunt — at a time when the ISI was formally trying to have Geo shut down for good.
The vituperative exchanges have exposed troubling aspects of Pakistan’s oft-lauded media revolution: Along with the military’s concerted campaign to muzzle the press is the heavy hand of querulous media barons who, driven by commercial concerns and personal grudges, may be endangering the sector they helped create.
“The way this has played out is extremely disturbing,” said Zaffar Abbas, editor of Dawn newspaper, one of the few media outlets that have stayed out of the dispute. “I’ve never seen the media like this, really going after one other. If better sense doesn’t prevail, whatever we have earned in press freedom will be lost.”
The stakes are high on all sides. Since 2007, when television coverage played a key role in fanning the street protests that led to the ouster of General Musharraf, the news media has grown into a powerful factor in Pakistani society. Television news has widened public debate and exposed abuses, but it has faced sharp criticism for shoddy reporting and for giving a platform to Islamist extremists.
The exploding market has also turned prime-time talk show hosts like Mr. Mir into powerful figures, and made fortunes for a handful of newly minted media tycoons.
For reporters, however, it has been a perilous time: Some 34 journalists have died in the line of duty since democracy was restored in 2008, said Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, whose report on media freedom is due to be published April 30.
“It is supremely dangerous to be a reporter in Pakistan,” he said.
The military, in particular, has squirmed under the media’s relentless scrutiny. Tensions have been bubbling for some time between the Jang Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate, and the ISI. Jang is owned by Mir Shakil ur-Rehman, a reclusive editor who lives with his two wives in Dubai, where he keeps a tight grip on a media empire that includes Geo News, several sports and entertainment channels, and a stable of newspapers in Urdu and English.
Last fall, Mr. Rehman came to believe that the ISI was sponsoring a new television station, Bol, to dilute his commercial and political clout. His newspapers ran hostile reports about Bol, prompting competing media organizations to hit back with stories that painted Geo as sympathetic to Pakistan’s old rival, India.
Senior figures at Geo claimed the spat had put their lives in danger. In November, Mr. Rehman’s son Ibrahim, who is chief executive of Geo, said he had received warnings of an attack by “the ISI or one of their proxies.” Mr. Mir claimed the ISI tried to lure him away from the station, and had threatened his life.
The tensions erupted publicly after last weekend’s attack on Mr. Mir. His brother, Amir Mir, who is also a journalist, accused the ISI of orchestrating the shooting in an emotional denunciation that was broadcast for hours on Geo, often against a backdrop of a photo of the ISI director general, Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam.
The ISI leadership, stung by the unusually open challenge, reacted angrily. On Tuesday, the military leadership sought to have Geo shut down and its editors prosecuted for “a libelous and scandalous” campaign that it said violated the country’s media law. On Thursday, television viewers in major cities found that Geo had disappeared from its usual position on their cable television sets. And on Friday, posters appeared across central Islamabad that praised the ISI and carried glossy photos of the spy chief, General Islam, a first in a country where many citizens fear to say the letters ISI out loud.
Few doubt the ISI, which has a dismal record of attacks on the press, is capable of such an attack. The spy agency’s media cell, infamous among journalists, is known to bribe select journalists with money, vehicles or other inducements. Critical reporters have been subjected to harassment, abduction and torture. In May 2011 the body of an investigative reporter, Saleem Shahzad, was found in a canal south of Islamabad after he was abducted by presumed ISI agents.
But other groups are also targeting journalists, in particular the Pakistani Taliban and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the dominant political party in Karachi, according to Amnesty International. Both of those groups have infiltrated Geo.
In 2012, the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi recruited a junior reporter at Geo to help plan the assassination of a news editor and a prominent talk show host at the station, said a former Geo manager with direct knowledge of the case. The plot was foiled when the reporter confessed.
A second Geo employee was identified as a militant after the Taliban assault on Karachi’s Mehran naval base in June 2011, the former manager said. The station also believes that insider information played a role in the death of Wali Khan Babar, a Geo reporter who was killed by the M.Q.M. in 2010, a current Geo manager said.
The controversy over Mr. Mir’s shooting is unlikely to be resolved. In the past two decades, Pakistan’s courts have produced convictions in just two fatal attacks on journalists: Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed in 2002, and Mr. Babar, the Geo reporter.
“Even if we discover who pulled the trigger on Hamid Mir,” said Mr. Qadri of Amnesty, “it’s very unlikely that the people behind them will be found out.”
Unlike in the Musharraf era, when journalists united against military attempts to muzzle them, virulent rivalries between the businessmen who own the major stations have pulled the news media apart.
Mr. Rehman of the Jang group has a rancorous relationship with Sultan Lakhani, who owns the smaller Express media group, which includes a television station and several newspapers. (One of those papers, the English-language Express Tribune, prints The International New York Times in Pakistan.) A third station, ARY, is owned by a family of gold dealers that has little love for Mr. Rehman.
“The control of the owners and their say in what happens has increased tremendously,” said one editor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “No editor or journalist can take a stand against them.”
The turmoil has partly obscured the plight of Mr. Mir, who has an ambiguous history with the ISI. He shot to prominence after interviewing Osama bin Laden in 1998, and was initially seen as sympathetic to the pro-jihadi agenda of the Pakistani military and the ISI. But in recent years he has championed the cause of Baluch nationalists, angering the army, and highlighted human rights abuses during military operations.
He is now under close protection at a Karachi hospital, where flowers are piled outside his door and doctors report a steady recovery. In a statement issued through his brother, Mr. Mir vowed to “continue the fight for the rights of people till my last breath and last drop of blood.”
Other journalists, however, worry that something greater is at stake: Pakistan’s hard-won press freedoms. The furor over Mr. Mir’s shooting could result not only in the closing of Geo, but also in greater restrictions on the entire media.
“A lot of us liberals feel a dilemma,” said Abbas Nasir, a former editor at the BBC and Dawn newspaper. “We’re disgusted with the way Geo has behaved in recent years. But we also know the consequences of letting the boots shut down the media. And that’s got to be the bottom line.”