Pakistan: Shooting the Messengers

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4413

Shujaat Bukhari draws from recent events to highlight the challenges faced in championing the freedom of the press

Shujaat Bukhari
Shujaat Bukhari
Editor in Chief, Rising Kashmir
Within a span of three weeks from March 28 to April 19, Pakistan’s two prominent journalists Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir escaped murderous assaults. The assassination bids show how hazardous the situation is for media persons in a country that has been facing the challenge to its very existence for over a decade now.

Raza, a seasoned journalist and anchor, had a close brush with death when his car came under attack in Lahore. He did survive but his 25-year-old driver Mustafa was not so lucky and embraced death. Hamid Mir, popular anchor for influential Geo TV who shot into prominence after interviewing Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden, was shot at by gunmen when he was on way to his Karachi studio on April 19.

Both these incidents shook the media setup in Pakistan which has emerged as a vibrant voice in the recent past in leading the struggle for democracy in the country. It was in fact the media that shaped a strong opinion about military rule and culminated in ouster of Parvez Musharraf in 2007.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was Musharraf who opened the large window for media in Pakistan, the same institution turned tables on him when he took on the judiciary.

With the growing urge for breathing in the air of democracy, the media proved to be the catalyst in the change that Pakistan witnessed after 2007.

However, the same media became the target of not only the non-state actors who have been on prowl in Pakistan, but the agencies as well. According to a latest report, 34 journalists were killed after 2007 in various attacks. The needle of suspicion is on extremist militant outfits and certain state owned organs. The reason for these attacks may be simple— the Pakistani society was not used to this kind of freedom and to take on the powerful was something alien to the taste of those who have ruled the country by default.

While the media in Pakistan was passing through a difficult phase to recoup with the looming threat to its members from both the sides, it was expected that the civil society and also those who have faith in democracy would put their heads together to save this institution from a deep sense of demoralization. However, the situation not only turned ugly with certain media houses at loggerheads but it also divided the society on the lines of full view public support to Pakistani Army and the powerful intelligence agency ISI.

Since Geo TV had blamed the ISI for the attack on Hamid Mir, both the Army and ISI took umbrage to the serious allegation and even moved to competent authority for banning the TV channel. This did not end there only but people in large numbers came on streets in support of Army, just like a political party in any other free and democratic country. Posters featuring Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharief and the traders associations eulogizing the support to Army and ISI were something that attracted the attention of foreign press as well.

Notwithstanding the fact that Army has always been at the centre of power in Pakistan for most part of its existence, this renewed trend of people coming in its support not only undermined the political set up of the country has but also indicated how other institutions of democracy were at the receiving end.

For more than half of the 66 years of its existence, Army has ruled Pakistan, that too through illegitimate means. The first ever experience of people of Pakistan with democracy virtually ended in 1958, when the first coup was staged. The seeds for the “contempt for democracy” were not sown by the Army but the bureaucrat-turned politicians who ruled the country from 1951 to 58. Historians are of the view that former Governor General Ghulam Mohammad and President Iskandar Mirza who held the offices during this period were instrumental in subverting the institution of democracy. This inculcated the “quest for power” in Army in the coming decades and every time a democratically elected ruler tried to assert, it was thwarted by a coup.
Political instability in Pakistan also severed its East wing in 1971 and it continues to face the challenge of maintaining its security. Delivery of democracy in bits and pieces has not helped it to consolidate. The last coup staged by General Parvez Musharraf in 1999 resulted in one of the longest military rule and had been prompted by Nawaz Sharief’s decision to fire him while he (Musharraf) was returning in a flight from Colombo.

Army being part and parcel of the power structure in Pakistan may be the destiny of the country but the real issue that was relegated to the background with this stand-off between Army and a media house was the threat to journalists.

Attempts on the life of Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir could have united media of the country the way it was when Musharraf erred in judgment in 2007. But with this becoming a war between Army and Geo and then spilling on to the streets has forced people to forget the real issue, which is the looming danger to the institution of journalism in Pakistan. Not only has Amnesty International painted a gloomy picture on this front but the Reporters Sans Frontiers has also declared Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Along side the common people, the journalists have been shadowed by the murky war in Pakistan and in case there is no concerted effort to scare away the perpetrators. The day will not be far when this most important part of a democratic setup will stop talking about people’s freedom to live.

Raza and Hamid are brave journalists, who may not be cowed down by the life threats, but it remains to be seen whether this situation inculcates a sense of confidence among those who are out to uphold the freedom of press in Pakistan.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir