A mysterious looking assassination attempt on a senior but often controversial TV anchor, Hamid Mir, rocked Pakistan with a serious political storm that saw the country and its media divided along the sensitive lines of antagonism and support to the country’s premier spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
Mir, who works for country’s leading news channel Geo TV, was shot and wounded at close range with six bullets while leaving Karachi airport. The incident became controversial right from the get go, with the country’s top spy agency ISI and its chief being accused of masterminding the attack. Geo TV kept flashing a picture of ISI chief Lt. General Zahirul Islam for eight hours while repeating the accusations against him and his agency.
Pakistan has been a dangerous place for journalists, especially after 9/11 as over one hundred have been shot dead under mysterious circumstances - the majority in the troubled tribal region. The incident also highlighted serious problems with media standards and deviation from norms by top media houses for vested interests. Hamid Mir has been a controversial journalist all his life, though he enjoyed popularity as the leading talk show host in the country. He was the first journalist to interview Osama bin Laden before and after 9/11. In the past decade, he survived some attempts on his life, reportedly by Taliban militants on charges of working for the ISI and other secret agencies, but this time the series took a U-turn when he held the ISI responsible for the attempt on his life.
Immediately after the incident, Hamid’s younger brother Amir Mir, who also works for the same media group and a number of media outlets in India, appeared on Geo TV and accused the ISI and country’s spymaster Lt. General Zahirul Islam of being directly involved in the attempt on his brother’s life. Amir claimed to have a video of Hamid Mir recorded a short while ago in which he stated that the ISI and its chief should be held responsible if something happened to his life.
Geo TV was also criticized by rival TV channels and ex-military analysts for its coverage in the immediate aftermath of the attackMansoor Jafar
Strangely, Geo TV avoided airing that video. A spokesman for the armed forces dismissed the accusation against the ISI and its chief as baseless and misleading. As a counter-move, the defense department urged the media regulatory body to suspend Geo TV on charges of undermining the institution responsible for country’s security and defense.
Geo was also criticized by rival TV channels and ex-military analysts for its coverage in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Geo has not responded formally to the complaint, saying it only reported the Mir family’s version of events and that rival channels have “wrongly attributed the allegations against the ISI to Geo.”
In its aftermath, a number of political groups and leaders, besides the competitors that Geo TV harshly maligns, slammed Geo TV for sudden, unabashed and unsubstantiated slander of the country’s spy agency and its chief. They accused the channel of playing into the hands of “enemies of state” and “conspiring to incite armed forces to overthrow the civilian government and impose martial law.”
On the other hand, some groups and leaders did come out in support of Geo TV and the channel showed them accusing the army and ISI of committing gross violations of human rights and political rights in the country. Pakistan has remained under direct or indirect military rule for more than half of its 67-year history and the army chief is considered to be the most powerful man in the country who controlled both internal and external affairs.
The footage of Mir’s car made the attempted assassination story mysterious as there was hardly any blood on the car’s rear seat where Mir was apparently sat. The top surgeons in the panel who removed bullets from Mir’s stomach were quoted by the Channel for the whole day as saying he received only three bullets, and they had no definite word of his recovery since he was in intensive care. They said his statement could be taken only after he became stable. But after 48 hours, Geo TV said Hamid received six bullets and only three of them were removed.
The impression that Mir was in critical condition was given another blow by Dr. Amir Liaqat Hussain, another controversial host of Geo TV, citing Mir’s driver that after sustaining bullets Mir recited prayers and kept raising slogans of “Long Live Pakistan” for quite some time as he sped the car to the hospital.
This comedy of errors reminded observers of similar claims and counter claims following the attack on the teenage anti-Taliban activist Malala Yusufzai. She had remarkable similarity with Hamid Mir as she survived Taliban sharp-shooters who attacked from a close range. Several misleading and illogical claims about her medical condition were made portraying her as seriously critical after a bullet pierced through her skull after entered from her neck. But she miraculously recovered within a fortnight after neurosurgery that did not require her head to be shaved.
A number of other top newsmen working in Geo TV and its mother organization “Jang Group” kept on leveling the oft-repeated accusations against the ISI of kidnapping and torturing political workers and human rights activists, especially those involved in the insurgency in Balochistan and opposed to the country’s joining of the U.S. war on terror. They openly made the absurd-looking demand that the ISI chief should step down after he was accused of involvement in the assassination attempt against a top media man.
Ugly shows of political power
What followed was nothing but a series of ugly shows of political power on this highly sensitive issue across the country. Meanwhile, Geo TV kept portraying the issue as a state-threat to freedom of expression and continued to muster support from across the world for its “cause.” But what was rather strange was the holding of rallies in all major cities by relatively unpopular political forces that came out of nowhere to express support for the army and accused Geo TV of being a “traitor” and “anti-state.”
The mustering of such small entities for extending political backing to the army was seen as an attempt by the armed forces to flex their political muscles, something which is strictly prohibited for the institutions of national defense. It was also viewed as a move to counter the decade old aspersions on the army for carrying out the U.S. war against its own citizens led by General [retired] Pervez Musharraf.
Besides, it did not surprise many when pro-army rallies sported large portraits of General Musharraf who is otherwise considered as a symbol of hatred across the country.
For the majority of countrymen, Geo TV stepped way beyond the ethics of journalism and transgressed the norms of impartiality when it accused the country’s spy chief of masterminding the assassination attempt and that too without any proof. Nowhere in the world could any TV channel dare to accuse country’s top spy agency of such a crime without any substantial proof. The mere word of Hamid Mir could never qualify as proof in a court of law.
Geo TV has already earned notoriety in the country for allegedly being paid by Indian agencies for its forced friendship campaign with India titled “Amn Ki Asha,” a Hindi phrase for (desire for peace). With sudden and unsubstantiated accusations against the ISI, it invited the bulk of the nation to suspect it was actually playing a highly dangerous and dirty game.
The defense department accuses Geo of conducting “a vicious campaign, libelous and scandalous in nature... against a state institution tasked to work for the defense, sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan.”
Although the news channel later appeared to distance itself from the accusations and it looked as if a patch-up could be achieved between the defense department and Geo TV with the usual customary apology, the latest statement by Hamid Mir from his hospital bed implied that the situation was far from over and was bound to intensify the stand-off between the news channel and the military.
At this juncture, both the aggrieved channel and infuriated top brass of Pakistan’s army should try to cool down the temperature as further raising the political heat could land the country in acute chaos that will neither benefit the politicians nor the army.
Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar