Media Tamasha by Ayesha Siddiqa

I came across this article by Ayesha Siddiqa, and expert on Pakistan affairs, and author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy” , on the recent attack on Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. I am sharing it with all so that we are all properly informed.

Media Tamasha


The attack on Hamid Mir is indeed condemnable. For survival of the state and society we cannot allow journalists (or even ordinary citizens) to be targeted. This attack followed the one on Express Group’s Raza Rumi, thus, indicating a new pattern of terrorist attacks targeting renowned media persons. In both cases, the attackers targeted those that knew rules of the game and would try to keep a certain balance despite seeming to cross certain lines and challenge what might have looked like holy cows. Surely Hamid Mir got into a conflict with former army chief Pervez Musharraf but that was a battle with an individual army chief and his supporters not necessarily the entire military institution.

Hamid Mir is indeed a seasoned player who has mastered the art of presentation which also means let people second guess political ideology and views. He has stood up for liberals despite having coined the word ‘liberal fascism’ and popularizing it. He has presented the Bangladesh and Baluchistan case but at the same time revealed an off-the-record conversation of Nawaz Sharif about the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that watered down warmth in bilateral India-Pakistan ties. It was indeed a great risk he took. The ‘dihati aurat’ remark made him appear very unprofessional. Let’s not forget that the media game in Pakistan, especially when it comes to electronic media, has a deep stamp of approval of the agencies. Often people are even blacked out as commentators if they do not meet approval ratings of certain quarters.

            Sadly, what might have provided the journalists community a moment of solidarity has become a source of division. There now seem to be ‘blue-land’ forces versus ‘foxland’, the entire debate taking us miles away from solving the problem of threat to journalists. There are those upset with why a particular media house launched an immediate attack against the prime military intelligence agency versus others that are defending the position. Interestingly, between these two positions lot of details are lost or not considered.

            There is yet a third category of people, not in the mainstream of the current debate, who believe that this is a moment to correct the skewed civil-military balance through driving home the point that the ISI is indeed the culprit. But that imbalance will remain as long as people don’t understand the nuances or unravel the intensity of the media-intelligence relationship.

Indubitably, the agency has very deep penetration in the media which is owed to the larger environment of lack of transparency of the state and freedom of information. There is a long queue of journalists who owe their existence to assistance from the ISI – going places on military helicopters, landing in exotic areas of conflict even inside jail cells where even birds can’t fly unless allowed by the spooks. Given the tendency of media houses not to invest in their people, information access is critical for any journalist, especially those trying to make a career. Even with those that are established, access to information is important to stay on top of their business. So, one finds journalists reporting, for instance, on militancy (a side business of the agencies) without ever visiting the field.

The media owners are businessmen not ideologues who would not take suicidal risks. In short, risks are well calculated. I remember a conversation with a prominent publisher who clearly defined the amount of risk she was willing to take as publishing was one of her many business interests. She was unwilling to take huge risks. So, publishing a book or an article is not an issue it’s owning that venture wholeheartedly that would land her organization in deep water.

Naming the DG ISI and his organization as being the culprit may look like a certificate of independent journalism but is it really as simple as that? The naming and shaming exercise may be a result of some tension within the military that in turn seems to create tension within the media, especially between several groups competing for attention within the larger military establishment including the ISI. It wasn’t too long ago (in 2010) that many of those that are today being critical of the intelligence agency and asking for removal of its chief attacked the PPP government accusing it of trying to destroy the agency, which was at that time presented as the main guarantor of Pakistan’s stability. Hamid Mir himself did couple of such programs. Surely, such people are not suicidal and realize exactly the high cost of defection especially after you have once been an embedded journalist. People have lost lives in the past when suspected of defection or crossing a certain line.

But referring to the conversation that the incident indicates a gradual change in power political dynamics, I would like to repeat the question that is it really the case? Even if the incident indicates a crisis of relationship it was managed instantly and the threat averted. We saw key players from a particular media group trying to distance the institution from the verbal attack holding individuals responsible, who in turn, may themselves be indebted to the agencies for supply of information.

With agencies deeply entrenched in media houses and business at large, the group that pointed finger might have taken a calculated risk. There is almost a sense of déjà vu watching the events. There is a gentle reminder of how the lawyer’s movement and the then chief justice versus the military president. Eventually a man was removed without substantial disempowerment of the larger institution. Could it be possible that the way the conversation unfolds around the attack may be just another such moment. In case, the threat increases go for plausible deniability, the scene for which has already been set.

Most likely, it will end as a great tamasha in which individuals will draw a pound of flesh and grill it to their taste. For instance, a key individual abandoned a media group as a protest for media freedom. Incidentally, the gent’s heart didn’t soften at another time when media and intellectual freedom was being threatened. Such is the way of the media.

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