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​Pakistan shoots its messenger

Sreeram Chaulia is a Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

Published time: June 10, 2014 11:34
A freighter vehicle is seen at the site damaged by Sunday's Taliban attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi June 9, 2014.(Reuters / Stringer)

The suspension of the broadcasting license of Pakistan’s most popular private television channel, Geo News, for a 15-day period is a blow to the Fourth Estate and a barometer on the civil-military power imbalance, the bane of Pakistani history.

The orders to shutdown Geo News were issued by the same government whose civilian leaders (Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid) had hitherto publicly announced that that they respect the independent media and would never contemplate closing television channels.

Something drastic happened between the Pakistani government’s initial hints of solidarity for Geo — which had been facing fire from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for “acting illegally in furtherance of an anti-Pakistan agenda” — and the decision last Friday to take its channels off air.

The notorious ‘state within the state’, as the ISI is known, along with the military that is infamous as an ‘army with a state under it’, prevailed over the legitimately elected civilian government and forced Geo’s gagging. Ironically, Geo TV was last banned during a state of emergency declared in 2007 by the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf.

The immediate background to Geo’s latest victimization by Pakistan’s entrenched defense establishment lies in an assassination attempt in April on the channel’s most famous anchor, Hamid Mir, in Karachi. Mir, who miraculously survived six bullets, was raising hackles in the military elite due to his outspokenness against the army’s brutal counter-insurgency in Balochistan province and his criticism of anti-India extremism in Pakistan.

As Hamid Mir was fighting for life in a Karachi hospital, his journalist brother Amir Mir went live on Geo TV to unleash a broadside against the ISI chief, General Zaheer ul-Islam, for orchestrating the assassination. Geo responded to the brazen shooting of its star anchor in typical overblown fashion, carrying General Zaheer’s photograph in the backdrop as Amir Mir vented spleen at the holiest of cows in Pakistan’s security apparatus.

The lesson of silencing

Even for the in-your-face pugnacious universe of Pakistani private television, a taboo had been crossed with such no-holds-barred panning of the ISI. Geo News had to be taught a lesson to remind Pakistan’s entire media industry about the red lines. Immediately after Amir Mir’s bravura performance, the Defense Ministry demanded that Geo be closed as punishment for “false and scandalous reports” against the ISI.

The military’s campaign to intimidate and financially ruin Geo included fantastic canards that Hamid Mir was an agent of RAW (India’s external intelligence agency) and that his channel was a mouthpiece for “pro-India propaganda.” The Geo network’s public opinion-shaping peace initiative with The Times of India group (Aman ki Asha or Hope for Peace), and its coverage of liberal Indian popular culture, earned the ire of Pakistan’s belligerent military top brass.

But where the tide turned ugly was when the ISI’s plot for taming Geo TV was aided and abetted by internecine rivalries among Pakistan’s fiercely competitive private media houses. Professional jealousy and personality clashes among immensely wealthy TV titans were exploited by the military establishment to whip up a frenzy against Geo as an unpatriotic outlet that must be silenced.

A tractor runs past a damaged building on the tarmac of Jinnah International Airport, after Sunday's attack by Taliban militants, in Karachi June 10, 2014.(Reuters / Athar Hussain )

Geo’s executives, who were facing this full-scale assault, even apologised for telecasting content immediately after Hamid Mir’s assassination attempt which was “excessive, distressful and emotional”. But the tirade went on until the Geo network was pulled out of the broadcasting lineup, depriving Pakistan’s news-hungry citizens of their favorite news source.

By downing Geo, the ISI scored a goal against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had begun to show old signs of independence from the military. In the bitter assessment of a Geo spokesman, “the government had finally surrendered in the face of tremendous pressure from unseen forces.”

Political angle

The Pakistani Prime Minister’s determination to keep prosecuting his past nemesis, General Musharraf, and his intent to pursue a path of peace with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP (which launched a sensational terrorist attack on Karachi airport this week) have ruffled feathers in the security establishment. Pakistani army officers do not see much value in negotiating with the TTP and prefer an all-out assault on it, even if that involves massive civilian collateral damage. Time alone will tell whether Prime Minister Sharif is being naïve in seeking a political solution with hard core Islamists of the TTP, but with the military at odds with his desires, his credibility as a negotiator is already weakened with the TTP.

Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in May was also contested by hawks in the Pakistani military, who remain wedded to the notion that ‘Hindu India’ is an eternal foe that must never be placated. Sharif had to dispatch his brother and Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, to personally meet the Chief of the Army and secure his approval before visiting New Delhi for Modi’s swearing-in.

Hamid Mir and Geo are thus pawns in this bigger tug-of-war between a popularly elected civilian Prime Minister, who told an Indian TV channel that the Chief of the Pakistani Army must “work under the federal government”, and the men in camouflage who believe they have a birthright to run their country.

As is the wont of a penetrative and sophisticated intelligence agency like ISI, the bulk of the attacks on Geo’s ‘anti-national’ programming were delivered by fellow media persons rather than the powers that be. But the outcome of this episode, with Geo under a temporary ban and facing a bleak future, is one which Pakistan’s boisterous print and electronic media houses would come to regret.

Muzzling Geo just as it was upping the ante against the unaccountable military will shrink the political opportunity space in which all Pakistani media organizations thrive. Mir and his Geo TV may not be paragons of virtue, but they were awakening audiences to the Praetorian military menace that has crippled Pakistan for six decades. Shooting the messenger is a regressive step for Pakistan’s fragile democracy and an alarm bell for a country adjudged by international advocacy bodies as one of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists.

Hamid Mir’s brush with death was preceded by a gun attack on another notable TV anchor and liberal intellectual, Raza Rumi, in Lahore in March this year. Rumi too barely escaped his assailants, suspected to be Islamist extremists who derive patronage from the intelligence agencies. He poignantly remarked in The Wall Street Journal that, “if the state doesn't kill you, non-state actors will.” Unlike Mir and Rumi, the investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad (this author’s longtime colleague at the Hong Kong-based Asia Times) was kidnapped, tortured and killed in central Punjab province in 2011 for daring to probe the unsavory links between the ISI and anti-India jihadist groups.

The Pakistani military’s crackdown on media personalities and institutions which try to build confidence with India is a dreadful reminder of the thorny path to peace in South Asia. The harassment of Geo TV in the name of Pakistani nationalism shows that the minders of the airwaves will go to any length to ensure supremacy of the hostile narrative.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.